One Night In Zagreb

For us, Zagreb was a bit of an incidental destination.

Originally we had planned to fly into, and then out of, Croatia’s capital city at the start and finish of this year’s summer holiday. When we changed our mind and decided to drive to the Balkans instead, we hung onto our hotel rooms in Zagreb for one night, and made it part of our trip home.

The four hour drive from Split to Croatia  was a fairly sedate one, mainly on motorway and broken up only the conclusion of our third ‘Stephen Fry Reads Harry Potter’ cd.

We did find the clouds sitting heavily atop the bare, rocky mountain range we drove alongside worth a photo or two though.

cloud topped mountains croatia

Zagreb was a much bigger town than we expected. The kids were ecstatic as we passed not one, but two, McDonalds on our approach. As far as they were concerned, this meant civilisation!

We stayed in the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, which has got to be one of the nicest places we’ve ever stayed, anywhere. It’s decorated in Art Deco style, the rooms are large and solid and it’s 10-15 minutes walk to the town centre. It’s probably a bit upmarket for the likes of us, but we really enjoyed our night in luxury there, and they could not have made us more welcome. They even had a valet to drive our filthy, crisp-packet strewn car to the hotel carpark for us. He didn’t blink an eye at the state of our vehicle, although he did try and climb in the wrong side to drive off initially.

Esplanade Zagreb Hotel

We originally booked two rooms, but they moved us into a beautiful suite and threw in a complimentary breakfast. The youngest two had to sleep on a sofa bed, but they didn’t mind and they loved the spa bath which was almost big enough for them to swim in. DH was happy because they had people to help get our luggage to our room and the children were happy with the WiFi that allowed them to enjoy an hour or so of Minecraft before we headed out to explore a little.

Esplanade Zagreb rooms

As we were only there for one night, we didn’t have much time to look around Zagreb but we did get out for a bit of a wander. We went next door and watched the fountain and colourful trams for a bit before heading towards the city centre for dinner. In the end, we couldn’t agree on anything we all wanted to eat ( the kids were tired and fussy by this point) so we just had a drink, walked back to the hotel and ordered room service. The kids were ecstatic to find fish fingers on the menu!

watching fountain in Zagreb

We all slept well; the beds were probably some of the most comfortable we’d had during the four weeks we were away, and we really enjoyed the breakfast the next morning. There was everything you could think of laid out buffet style, and hot dishes, such as eggs benedict and pancakes, were available to order. Best of all there were many other kids around, including a couple of screaming babies, so our lot weren’t the noisiest kids in the room for once.

Halfway through the meal, DS went off to the toilet, and came back wittering on about a ‘quiet room’ that he wanted to show us. So we’d packed, and DH was checking out, we traipsed after him to take a look. It was a huge ballroom, all decked out in white and crystal. When a staff member came along and caught us peering through the door, he ushered the kids in, turned the lights on and wanted to show it off to us. The kids got up on the stage and sung a few songs to enjoy the amazing acoustics but I was terrified that they would break something!

emerald ballroom

 And then that was it, our car was driven round and packed for us and we were off to our next one-nighter on our way home to the UK.

Zagreb is widely underrated as a place to visit in its own right, as most people probably fly in, then race off down to the coast to Split and Dubrovnik, but there are plenty of parks, museums and galleries to explore; we could have easily spent a couple of days here. And despite being vastly superior, the accommodation was half the price of the hotel we stayed in in Dubrovnik. It would be a great place for a city break, with or without children and we will definitely be back for more.

 

 

 

 

 

The Rest Of The Holiday: Split

I know this is a long overdue post, but two days after we got home, I came down with cellulitis and  today, 4 days later, I still feel barely able to type a coherent sentence…

So we are safely home and for the last 5 night we have been able to sleep in our own beds. It was my pillow that I missed the most I think.

We left Dubrovnik after three nights there, and headed north for Split. Because of an oversight when buying car insurance on the way down into Bosnia, we ended up taking a bit of a detour that involved a car ferry, rather than using the usual coastal road that zips across Bosnia.

From there we headed to Split for 2 nights, then started driving home, stopping for a night at a time in Zagreb ( Croatia), Salzburg( Austria), Triesenberg (Liechtenstein) and finally, our old standby, Reims( France). On our way back we also drove through Slovenia and Switzerland. Our children are now quite familiar with the geography of these parts of Europe.

Split

Split is one of the popular seaside towns of Croatia, and is built around the ancient Roman Palace of the Emperor Diocletian, and its bay and port.

Split bell tower

We really liked Split and found it less Touristy than Dubrovnik. There are plenty of tourists, of course, but they seem to be less concentrated; maybe there are more local visitors as we certainly didn’t hear as much English spoken in the crowds.

The ‘Old City’ is much smaller and there is also a ‘Not So Old’ area to wander around as well. We really liked the way the Old and New exist right next door to each other. Split hasn’t tried to renovate everything and there are bits of Old Split propped up by newer buildings built right alongside then. Every corner you turn presents you with something different.

old next to new in Split

There were some cheesy Roman Soldier reenactments, performed in Croatian, but we got the idea. It was quite a sight to see them marching in and out of the ancient ruins though.

roman soldiers in Split

We enjoyed exploring both the old and new towns, eating delicious sandwiches, mimicking statues and even spent a quarter of an hour looking at an exhibition of stuffed frogs frozen in various human poses.

What I didn’t like was the slippery smooth and uneven cobblestones. I managed to fall over a couple of times; once I took a small child down with me. Only my pride was hurt.

And at least there were plenty of bits of  fallen masonry to sit on when that happened.

Sitting in Split

And as in many places we visited in the Balkans, there was plenty of ice cream to sample.

Croatian icecream

We stayed in a couple of  rooms owned by Apartments Gajeta, which were clean and centrally located, but involved quite a trek with our luggage through the town.  We had an apartment for four ( with washing machine-hurray!) and one for two, but while they were close, they weren’t in the same building. DH shared with DD2 and I had the others. The first night I shared the sofa bed with DS but it so uncomfortable that I made the girls sleep there the following night; they weren’t impressed either. Both apartments had air conditioning, fridges, WiFi and dishwashers but both were on the second floor of some rather steep stairs. My knee didn’t like them very much at all, so these apartments would not be suitable for anyone who had major difficulties with stairs.

We only got to spend a couple of nights in Split but would like to spend longer and visit some of the offshore islands, as well as spend more time downtown.

 

 

Three Nights in Dubrovnik

First things first, Dubrovnik is hideously expensive.

The food is mediocre, a small bottle of soda can set you back £4, and the town is often crammed full of tourists off the cruise ships that dock 1, 2, 3 at a time.

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We booked our accommodation months ago. Normally we stick to B&B type places or apartments when we stay in big cities for more than one night, but DH couldn’t find anything that would take 6 people except for a large hotel about 10 minutes taxi ride from the Old Town.

We had two rooms booked at the Grand Hotel Park for three nights, but when we arrived after driving from Perast, they offered us a two bedroom apartment for the same price. One room contained a double bed and there were three beds in the other room, but they managed to squeeze a 4th converted sofa sort of bed into the larger room as DS is still pretty small. It still cost around £400 a night ; for example nights this was only a little less than the cost of the villa we rented for a week in Perast.

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The kids liked the hotel, especially the pool, although the salt water was a bit of a shock apparently.

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But for such expense, you’d expect top notch accommodation in most towns; not in Dubrovnik.

The hotel was clean enough, the staff were friendly and the beds were comfortable but there were little niggles like remote controls, showers and lights not working. The lifts were tiny, they only fit 6 people at a time so it took ages to get luggage up to our room, then back down to the car again.

And although the food was fine, I hated the buffet meal experience; I think it reminded me of boarding school.

Dubrovnik Old Town was a short cab ride away. There are frequent buses and of course we could have driven, but the parking situation is said to be dire.

But despite the cost, we did have a nice time. We went over to Stari Grad a couple of times and just wandered around with no particular agenda.

The first time we paid some money and headed up to the walls. These are very high up, involve a lot of stairs and are not completely secure if you have small children who like to lean over walls but there are plenty of views to enjoy, and many nooks to explore.

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It was very hot, so we only did the South wall, which runs beside the sea. It took us around 40 minutes and we moved at an extremely leisurely pace, watching boats, kayaks and people swimming I the ocean far below as we walked.

When we came down off the walls, we walked a few streets away from the main Stradum and stopped for a cold drink and some pizza. We’ve eaten a lot of pizza in Europe. We’ve eaten almost as much ice cream.

Ice cream is an essential part of the Dubrovnik experience, especially with children. Carry wet wipes at all times.

Drink prices in Dubrovnik can vary quite a bit depending on where you go. You can be charged up to 4 euros for a small bottle of lemonade if you drink at the top of the cable car or close to the main street. Walk down a few side streets and you’ll save yourself at least a euro.

After our lunch we went down to the port to take a closer look at the boat trips avaliable for the next day. We passed a lady advertising a glass bottomed boat tour leaving in the ‘next 5 minutes’ and the kids fell for her patter. To be honest, so did I. DH didnt; he said it would be shit and it was.

He paid up anyhow but the trip was over crowded, there was no commentary, we saw only a few small fish and some sea urchins and none were especially interesting or colourful. On the plus side, we got a pleasant boat ride around an island, saw a couple of big caves and the kids got a good look at a local nudist beach. I don’t think it scarred them too badly.

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The following day we returned and took the cable car up to the top of the mountain standing over Dubrovnik. There wasn’t much of a queue and it wasn’t too scary and you do get an amazing view of the coast, but I couldn’t help wonder why they didn’t build a viewing platform that didn’t overlook the cables.

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There is a restaurant and a souvenir shop at the top but if you buy anything, you’ll be paying top kuna.

We enjoyed our stay in Dubrovnik and the kids loved the hotel and pool.

Dubrovnik is a gorgeous town but it was just a bit full of tourists for my liking. I’d certainly enjoy it better if I had it all to myself.

I’m not sure we’d bother going back for any length of time as we saw a lot of places we’d love to go back to and I just didn’t feel the love for Dubrovnik.

I certainly don’t regret including it in this tour of Europe through; we can now claim we’ve been there, done that.

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The Gallery: World Photography Day

Monday just gone was World Photography Day and for this week’s Gallery we were challenged to take a photo of something that we were doing that day.

In our case, we were driving from Dubrovnik to Split, in Croatia.

Most people take the main motorway, along the coast, but due to a mix up we found ourselves without car insurance for the 15 miles it takes to cross from Croatia to Bosnia and back into Croatia again. Investigation in Dubrovnik suggested that is wasn’t going to be easy to get any; they didn’t sell it at that border and our normal UK insurance didn’t cover us.

We considered driving without insurance, as it seemed they didn’t check whether you had it before you went through the border, but we worried we might have an accident or get stopped by the police, and in the end we decided to take an alternative route out onto a peninsula that effectively overshoots the troublesome bit of Bosnia. The road was just a little winding B road, but was fine and eventually got us to Trpanj, where we caught a car ferry to the port of Ploce then carried on up the coast without ever leaving Croatia. Our insurance remained valid the whole time.

While queuing up for the ferry with a lot of locals, Italians and Germans (we were the only GB car on board) I took this photo of a beautiful rocky outcrop topped with a statue of the Madonna.

The water was so smooth, it looked like the rocks were floating, suspended between sea and sky.

For more World Photography Day photos, check out The Gallery over at Sticky Fingers today.

Sticky Fingers Photo Gallery

A Week In Perast

DH and I have wanted to visit Montenegro ever since we saw the James Bond film, Casino Royale, that supposedly featured it. Ironically, it was actually filmed in the Czech Republic, but Montenegro has stuck in our minds, and when we settled on the Balkans as our holiday destination this year, there was no question about our ultimate destination.

We knew we wanted to visit Kotor bay, but a lot of it is dominated by modern hotels and huge holiday housing estates. We wanted to go somewhere quieter, unspoiled and charming.

Perast, a Montenegran town dating back to a time when the Venetians  were a force to be reckoned with, seemed to fit the bill. We rented a 3 bedroom villa for a week and based the rest of our holiday on that.

Perast is not a big town; you can walk from one end  to the other in 20-30 minutes, even with kids in tow, and only 350 people actually live there permanently. The numbers swell during peak tourist season although it was still relatively peaceful when we were there.

Perast’s Venetian origins are obvious every time you look at its19 churches and 16 palaces, and although things look a bit faded hundreds of years later, it’s not hard to see how grand the place must have been once.

Perast has a main street that runs beside the sea. This deviates from the coastal road, which runs behind the town, and is supposedly car-free during the day. In reality cars do drift along this pedestrian-heavy strip quite frequently, but they normally go slowly and carefully, except for the little tourist buses that bomb through, stopping for no one every 30 minutes or so.

There is parking at each end of the town which is policed 24/7 by segway mounted young men who swoop back and forth collecting fees and keeping an eye on your vehicle.

We loved staying in Perast. We’d get up and have some breakfast, throwing the front door open to say hello to the little family of stray cats that lived in the area.

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There was a lovely table on the patio but unfortunately the resident wasps guarding the ripe grapes overhead did not make ideal meal time companions for our insect adverse children.

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We found Perast to be an ideal place to  stay as a family. There was a small minimart 5 minutes walk from the villa and we managed to get cereal, milk, bread, yoghurt etc for breakfast from there.

Lunches, we grabbed from the sandwich/pancake stand in the town square, or from the pizza restaurant, and we ate out every evening. Perast has many restaurants but not
all of them were suitable for our rowdy lot.

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There is plenty to do in and around the town. Mostly the kids just wanted to swim but we did drag them out of the sea now and again.

There are no sandy beaches in Perast so all the swimming is done from terraces.

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The kids loved these and spent hours trying to catch fish from them, jumping off and bobbing around in the waves created by the wake of passing boats.

When we could be bothered, we hauled the kids out and made them put some clothes on.

Clothes appear to be optional in Perast by the way; plenty of people wander around in just togs but a lot of these are quite alarming shades of brown. Sun protection seems to be quite literally a foreign concept for some people!

While dressed, we took a day trip  Albania, visited the nearby town of Kotor for the day and took a boat
trip out to one of the tiny islands in the Bay.

Albania took up an entire day and Kotor was well worth visiting; we could have gone back there for a second look. DH spent most of his time there climbing up to the fortress 1350 steps above the old town in the midday sun, while the rest of us wandered around the narrow, cobbled streets getting lost.

The island was easily accessible by taxi boat which the kids loved because they got to sit up front.

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On the little man-made island, there is a beautifully decorated church and tiny museum full of religious relics and objects related to the seafaring history of the area. There were no written labels in English, but we found a couple of young women inside willing to explain things to us.

DH and the kids also climbed the bell tower of St Nicholas’ church for view over the town. I stayed at ground level and took photos of them peering triumphantly down at me from a great height.

We all had a fabulously relaxing week in Perast and would recommended it as a base for a laid back family stay in the Bay of Kotor.

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The Gallery: Relax

We are on holiday as I write this.

Taking over the sunloungers

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been tripping across Europe, stopping here and there on the way to our ultimate destination, Montenegro.

Because we have driven from the UK, we’ve had to have a number of  one night stops. These are always tiresome: drag all the luggage to the car, unpack everything you need for the night, sort out who is sleeping where and with whom, find somewhere to feed kids, wash the kids, get everyone to sleep, wake up relatively early, get everyone dressed, pack up everything and reload the car.

This is not relaxing, especially for the kids.  So we do try and stop for 2 or more nights in a place for at least as many days as we spend staying for one night. Doing this ensures we have some down time, as well as time on the road.

So far this trip, we’ve had stopovers at Lake Bohinj in Slovenia for 4 nights,

Swimming in Lake Bohinj

3 nights near Plitvice in Croatia,

Boardwalk over clear water

3 nights in Mostar in Bosnia,

mostar bridge, bosnia

And now we are in Perast, Montenegro for 7 nights.

Perast, Montenegro

It is lovely here, semi-unspoilt and pretty quiet for peak season. But there are no sandy beaches so all the swimming is done from terraces. We thought the kids might not enjoy swimming from these as much as they enjoyed the Lake in Bohinj or the river in Plitvice, but they have loved jumping and fishing from the concrete platforms.

mostar bridge, bosnia

And once they are out on the water, they have enjoyed riding the waves created by passing boats while clinging together on their floaties.

Lilo Flotilla

We only have a couple of nights left here, and after that we we start travelling back up the continent, heading homeward.

We have a couple more multi-night stays to look forward to on our way back,  so we will have to make the most of our opportunities to relax as our last few nights in Europe consist of 4 single night stops, one after the other, before we can drive through the Eurotunnel, blast around the M25 then finally collapse through the door of Home, Sweet Home.

For more Relaxing Posts, check out Sticky Fingers this week.

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Our Adventure To Albania

‘Eh?’

I was staring at the weather forecast for Shkoder in disbelief. It was Friday night, we had just arrived at our villa in Perast, Montenegro and we were planning to take a trip to the city of Shkoder, in Albania the next day. I was trying to work out what clothing we should take with us, and after nearly two weeks of sunshine it was a shock to see that the forecast was warning of rain and thunderstorms.

I squinted disapprovingly at the offending Weather App on my phone, and decided to ignore it.

Saturday was going to be a long day; we were going to be picked up at 6:30am and driven to our coach in Budva about 45 minutes away. Then it was supposedly 2.5 hours to Shkoder, one of the largest cities in Albania, where we would learn something of its culture, explore an ancient castle, eat some Albanian food, and visit the town centre.

Coach trips really aren’t usually our thing. They are usually full of childless couples who want to see as much as possible, as quickly as possible. This doesn’t always pan out when you are travelling with kids. We prefer to travel independently if at all possible but originally we were going to fly to the Balkans, which meant we had to hire a car. Hire car companies don’t let you take their cars into Albania.

Once we knew we were going to drive our own car, we had already booked the coach tour. We looked briefly into driving ourselves , but stories of long border queues, poorly maintained roads and terrible driving put us off.

This proved to be a wise decision…

The vehicle that picked us up on Saturday morning was a pleasant surprise. The driver was chatty and spoke English well, but he was faintly disapproving of us wanting to go to Albania. He drove well though, and warned us about how bad the traffic would be on the way back later that night. Apparently the coastal road of Montenegro transforms into a carpark in the weekend.

He pointed out various places as he drove, including a sandy beach *this* side of Budva, near a place called Jaz. We may visit there later this week.

Once in Budva, we transferred to a slightly larger, much older vehicle, more a minivan than a coach, There were no seatbelts so it was just as well we didn’t bring the kids’ car seats with us. Already aboard was an older couple, a driver and a translator.

The couple were a pair of nearly retired medics from the States, and luckily they were very child friendly. We stopped at another town about 20 minutes down the coast to pick up a German couple who said very little during the trip, but at least they didn’t run screaming from the vehicle when they saw us.

We stopped off for a photo opportunity at Sveti Stefan,  a posh, exclusive resort masquerading as a picturesque islet barely attached to the mainland by a thin bridge.

Sveti Stefan

 Then we got back in the van and drove for hours. They were very warm, bumpy hours punctuated only by a toilet stop for DS.

We had been told that it was only the 2nd time our translator  had been to Albania, but we suspected that our driver might not be familiar with the area either, when he got lost and had to backtrack the last 20 minutes.

But finally we reached the border crossing and sat in a slowly moving queue for half an hour until someone informed the driver that there was a bus queue. He promptly crossed onto the wrong side of the road, zipped past the huge queue , squeezed through three lines of vehicles and stopped in front of a bored looking policeman.

Eventually we got through the border and were looking forward to learning something about Albania but instead promptly stopped for a cold drink at a souvenir shop and to pick up our Albanian guide. We were already running late and wanted to just get going.

At last everyone got back in the van and off we went. Our guide was called Boris and he gave us a running commentary of the places we passed along with a potted history of Albania. There is no denying the country has had a rough ride; it’s had a varied political past and in the last 100 years has been an Independent state, a Democracy, a Kingdom, a Principality, a Communist country and is now a Republic. No wonder Albania looks a bit rough around the edges.

There is obvious poverty at the border in the form of a large slum.  People living under strips of cloth for shade, young babies lying asleep on the dirt or curled in carseats, young kids all over the road and between  the cars. The woman and children file past the waiting cars, tapping on your windows and trying to catch your eye. You can’t help them all, so the only fair thing to do is to shake your head and try to ignore them. But it does feel wrong.

The roads aren’t great; there are large potholes dotted along them, but the driving is worse.  Cars speed past you, often towards you on the wrong side, and intersections become a game of chicken. And there is litter everywhere.

It’s an interesting place though.  The areas we visited were all near Shkoder, where we climbed a hill to explore the remains of Rozafa Castle. There has been a fortress here since before Christ was born and the castle is the subject of an interesting legend.

Rozafa castle

The story goes that there were three brothers building the castle but they arrived at work each day  to find the previous day’s work demolished. A wise man was consulted and he told them that only a human sacrifice could stop the devil from stopping their work. Some one must be walled up inside the castle walls, but who to sacrifice? Finally the brothers agreed to offer the first of their wives who got up to make breakfast. The brothers agreed not to say anything to their wives but the two older brothers broke their promises and told their wives to stay in bed. So it was the youngest brother’s beautiful wife Rozafa who showed up the next day. She agreed to be blocked inside the castle walls on one condition – holes should be left so her right eye could see out of the wall, her right arm could caress her newborn son, her right breast could feed him, and her right foot could rock his cradle. Rozafa was entombed and the castle remained standing. It is said that the walls of the castle run with milk still…

We didn’t see any leaky stones but we did get a good view of the surrounding district after a steep, hot climb. I also noticed that there were a fair few clouds gathering in the distance.

Next up was lunch. We were taken to a very nice shady restaurant that did ‘tourist’ food- ie pizza and pasta for the kids, while the adults could try something a bit more traditional. DH and I selected a beef and vegetable casserole in a cheese sauce, which was very rich, and I also had a mozzarella and tomato salad which was nice, but had startingly yellow mozzarella in it.

The kids discovered a lovely secret playground in the restaurant garden and were playing happily in it when we heard the first rumbles of thunder.

Our guide ushered us to the van and directed the driver frantically to Shkoder town centre. The poor guy was desperate to show off the town centre to us and didn’t want to be doing it in the middle of a storm.

He was out of luck. We remained dry while he showed us the statue of Mother Teresa ( born in Albania) but as he was showing us the upgraded town centre we felt the first spits of rain.

Shkoder town centre- look at those clouds

A bolt of lightning ripped through the sky and an enormous clap of thunder scared us indoors to a very nice enclosed rooftop restaurant from which we watched the rain come down, and the lightning reflect in the mirrored windows.

Most of us had a cold drink and some icecream, while the Germans went out exploring and DH went out to buy a fridge magnet for our growing collection.

We got a little damp as we ran from the building to the the minivan but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been and I now have a healthy respect  for the weather App on my phone. Our guide just kept shaking his head and saying ‘There are never storms in Shkoder in summer’!

The drive back to Montenegro was tedious to say the least. The border line was huge but our driver had the right idea by now and whizzed down the left hand side lane and pulled in to the souvenir shop. There was a sweet little dog hanging around the car park, begging for food. She was obviously feeding puppies and looked rather mangy but DD3 fixated on her and cried when we left.

Once through the border we started the long crawl home. We had been told we’d be home around 6pm but a combination of Saturday and rain caused us to sit in barely moving traffic for hours. Luckily DS slept most of the way home, so we could rotate the now expiring Nintendo among the girls and kept them amused until we rocked up at the hotel to change to our ride back to Perast.

Because we were two hours late, the van booked to take us to our villa was no where to be seen and we had to ask the ditzy translator  to phone the driver for us. Luckily he wasn’t too far away but he made no secret of the fact that the volume of traffic was a source of dismay for him.

We finally got in around 9:15 pm having been on the road for over 14.5 hours. Luckily the village we are in has a takeaway pizza place, so that was dinner sorted after which it was time for showers and bed.

Albania wasn’t a highlight of my holiday but I’m glad we went. It was more of a mission than an excursion but I enjoyed the castle legend and the lunch, and just about tolerated the rest.

The kids found the long hours of cramped travelling for a few hours of walking around tedious and the storm was a bit traumatic for a couple of them but as ever, it was an experience.

At the top of the castle