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When in Rome

The three of us arrived in Rome on Friday morning after an early bus and train journey. We all celebrated our last ride on the coastal Amalfi road and we tried to appreciated our last glimpses of the beautiful views while we held down our nausea. Once in Rome we headed straight to our hostel, which happened to be in the middle of Chinatown – a phenomenon I didn’t expect to see in Rome!

Vatican Museum

After settling in a bit we headed straight to Vatican City. Mom and I decided to head into the Vatican Museum to explore (and especially to see the incredible Sistine Chapel) while Nick explored St Peter’s Basilica and the surrounding area. The museum was incredible with its collection of art – I especially enjoyed the Raphael rooms and the map room (full of maps of Italy throughout the ages). After escaping the crowds of the Sistine Chapel (how anyone expects a room packed with hundreds of people to remain quiet is a mystery, but the guards sure do try), mom and I headed for St Peter’s the explore the square and Basilica. We examined statues of the founder saints, the Pieta statue, and the many altars. Then we gawked at the Swiss Guard like awkward tourists while we waited to meet up with Nick.

After Vatican City we accidentally headed to the Spanish Steps, after we had discussed skipping them due to limited time and poor reviews from our friends! I got a bit of teasing from mom and Nick for that one! The steps turned out to be an interesting place – the use of public space in Europe is very different from in Canada. Groups of young people hang out and socialize for free on the steps – no need to buy coffee to sit in the shop or go to the movies or a restaurant. These spaces give people, young and old, a free space to socialize and meet and more than that, a public space people want to spend time in – unlike many city-based public spaces I’ve seen in Canada.

From the Spanish Steps we walked to Trevi Fountain, along the way visiting the Temple of Hadrian and the Column of Marcus Aurelius. At Trevi Fountain we tossed coins amidst the throngs of tourists and then found a nearby restaurant to have dinner. After a bottle of wine and some delicious food we wandered past the Piazza Venezia and the Victor Emmanuel Monument before meandering past the Forum on the way to see the Colosseum at night – its beautiful with the lighting and much calmer than during the day. It actually seemed much more majestic at night than when we visited the next day. After a long day we all turned in to prepare for our very busy next day!

Column of Marcus Aurelius

Trevi Fountain


The next morning, after breakfast at the hostel, we all headed out to see the Colosseum during the day. Despite the relatively early start, the crowds were huge and the line took a little while. Eventually we got in and spent some time following the crowds wandering through the levels. The Colosseum was impressively large, but like I mentioned it was much more majestic the previous night without the crowds. It was hard to get a grasp of the place with all the other tourists there – so far in most of my travels I’ve been very fortunate to avoid the tourist throngs and being a person who doesn’t particularly enjoy crowds, they throw me off-balance a bit! After leaving the Colosseum we headed into another crowd at Palatine Hill and walked through to the Forum. It was hot and sticky and also full of people, but very beautiful and the breeze at the top of the hill was cooling.

After a few hours of sticking out the crowds we headed towards the Pantheon, stopping for gelato beforehand. The Pantheon was an incredibly impressive building. Its one of the best preserved Roman buildings left and has been in use continually since its construction. Standing inside I can see why Michelangelo thought that it was the work of angels and why it inspired most modern places of worship. After stopping at a bakery for some sweets and coffee – a welcome break from the busy day – we headed to Piazza Navona where the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers designed by Bernini lives, situated beside Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone by Borromini. Longtime rivals, Bernini designed the statues on the fountain to look like they were holding up the Church – a testament to his lack of faith in Borromini’s designs.

Bernini’s Fountain

We headed back to the hostel for a rest and Nick started his long process of trying to figure out his flights. Mom and I went for a walk and stumbled into the San Giovanni in Laterano Cathedral – an incredibly beautiful building and we were lucky enough to witness Mass. After our walk we headed to a recommended local restaurant (the staff were very surprised to see non-Italians, but the food was delicious!) On the way back we stumbled onto a local festival celebrating South American immigrants and their culture (as well as its integration with Italian culture) that was sponsored by the local Church. The performances were lovely – lots of music and dancing and Mom and I were treated to a Sicilian immigrant’s cannoli which he was selling from a booth at the festival. It was the best cannoli I’ve ever had – amazing! Mom and I headed back to the hostel to turn in for our flight early the next morning – back home we go!

San Giovanni in Laterano

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Istanbul

We took a very long bus ride into Istanbul from Thessaloniki. It took about 10 hours, including our stop at the Turkish border where we got a pretty new visa! By the way, thanks Canadian government for screwing over those of us who travel! Bloody expensive 45 euro visa. At least we’re getting to spend two weeks in the country, which makes it more worthwhile. We arrived at 6pm and spent about 3 hours trying to get to our hosts’ place. Istanbul is a huge city – our only complaint while there is that its long and frustrating trying to get anywhere, especially anywhere out of the way. We finally arrived and our host, Bahadir was nice enough to order us adona kebab at it was late and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

New Mosque

In front of the Egyptian Bazaar

The next day Janice and I headed across Bosphorus to the main touristy section of town. It took over an hour to get there by bus but we finally got there and arrived at the fish market. After a couple minutes figuring out how to get across the street we finally made it to the New Mosque to look around. After finding a bank to break our enormous bills we headed into the Egyptian Spice Market to look around and pick up some spices and Turkish delight. I have never liked Turkish delight outside Turkey, but in Turkey it’s actually quite nice! Full of nuts and not too sweet. After the market we wandered up to Topkapi palace and looked around the magnificent buildings before heading to both the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque – both magnificent buildings. We also managed to sneak in a visit to the cisterns which were incredible. After a less than stellar meal in the least touristy restaurant we could find (which was lousy) we headed back to our hosts’ place for the night. After meeting him we headed out to the main bar district and saw a live performance of Turkish folk music (which was good but loud) and then wandered home through the busy plaza.

Inside Topkapi Palace

Aya Sofia

Interior of Aya Sofia

The cisterns

The next day we headed back to the touristy side of town and wandered through the outdoor market first and then into the Grand Bazaar – the biggest indoor market in the world. It’s enormous and we couldn’t find our original entrance so we exited at the opposite side of the building and wandered into a café (we tried to find the least touristy) but we still ended up eating over-priced unappetizing food (wet kugel being the worst). We met Bahadir later than evening and he took us on a tour of his favourite mosque before taking us to a cool shisha café with an amazing over the city and the Bosphorus. We sat on the balcony in the warm evening air and had rose and mint flavoured shisha – which was actually pretty nice! Then we went to a bouza store – yes, there is a Turkish version of the Bulgarian drink, but its much sweeter and eaten for dessert, not breakfast. It tasted a bit like rice pudding without the rice, which I very much enjoyed (for everyone who knows about my rice pudding obsession!) We went back to Bahadir’s place and met up with a friend of his (Ondatje) who drove us down to Bebek (a posher neighbourhood of Istanbul). On the way, we had a little accident as he was backing the car out of a very tight alley; Ondatje sideswiped another car and took off its side-view mirror. Once we got to Babek we stopped for a common street food – a baked potato topped with the most outrageous items – pickles, peas, couscous, hotdogs and cold potato salad are all options. It was enormous but very tasty and we drank tea before walking along the river.

Blue Mosque at Night

In front of Aya Sofia at Night

Epic Baked Potato

Our last full day in Istanbul was mostly taken up with a cruise of the Bosphorus – very pretty and we saw the sunset – and then walking among the fish stalls and restaurants. We had delicious lachmacun for dinner (like Turkish flatbread pizza) and hung out with Bahadir and his roommates for the night playing Turkish monopoly. The next day we had to leave on an overnight bus to Cappadocia later in the day, but we wandered through a couple more mosques, looked at the ruins of a bath complex and headed to Galata Tower where we were able to see the sunset from nine stories up before collecting our things and heading back to the bus station headed for Goreme.

Bosphorus Cruise

Sunset over the Bosphorus

Bath Ruins

View from Galata Tower

Last sunset in Istanbul

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Sofia

We arrived in Sofia quite late in the evening after missing our first bus from Veliko Tarnovo. We were staying with a host in Sofia, but we couldn’t contact her because our cellphone had died. Quite a story. We left our original charger in Nottingham and had to buy another in Heathrow airport. The we found in Veliko Tarnovo that we’d lost that one – we think in Brasov, but we’re not quite sure! So our phone died by the time we were heading to Sofia! (In a continuation of this story, we bought a new one in Sofia and then left it at our host’s place – we took another by mistake! But the phone was charged enough that we made it through the rest of the trip without a charger!) Our host Rada was very accommodating when we finally arrived though and took us out to get something to eat at a nice restaurant. We all had Bulgarian style pizza and salad (quite yummy, but I’m not sure I like hard-boiled eggs on pizza). Then we headed back to Rada’s lovely and spacious flat to await the arrival of her other couchsurfer – a guy from Brazil. Tiago turned out to be lovely and an architecture student – we spent quite a lot of time with him, wandering around the city looking at pretty buildings and getting him to tell us about the various styles and histories!

One of the remaining mosques

The next morning we all headed to downtown Sofia to meet up with a free walking tour group, after grabbing a traditional breakfast of bouza and cheesy Bulgarian pastry. Bouza is a sweet and sour fermented wheat drink – Tiago and Janice didn`t like it at all, but I thought it was quite nice! The walking tour took a couple of hours and took us by almost all the main buildings in downtown Sofia. We saw …….. While walking by the Parliament we saw a changing of the guards and then the newly elected President walked out the front door with a single bodyguard and aide and walked right by us! He even nodded and smiled at us – which made everyone very impressed! A little later we were looking at a 4th century church that had been excavated with its roof intact and we ran into a Kiran Aluwahlia – a Canadian-Indian artist who was performing at the ongoing music festival. Unfortunately we`d missed her performance the night before!

Changing of the Guard

4th Century Church

Alexandre Neveski

Theatre

We went for lunch at a nice modern restaurant with some friends we met on the tour and had a traditional mixed grill – lots of meat and very Bulgarian. That afternoon a few of us wandered through the enormous outdoor Ladies Market (where we bought our charger) before going to a pub for a couple drinks. We cooked dinner at home that night (lentil and carrot soup) and we had a baking session, which I`d been dying for! After some decent chocolate mint cookies and a session of listening to Rush, we headed to bed.
The next day, Tiago, Janice and I took a day trip to Rila Monastery which is a couple hours out of Sofia. It’s the most beautiful monastery (still operating as such) set is the gorgeous Bulgarian countryside right on the edge of Rila National Park (which has beautiful mountains and hiking). It`s hard to describe how beautiful it was – so I`ll just show you a bunch of photos instead!
After we got back we met up with Rada at the city library to watch a performance of Native American song and dance (performed by a Bulgarian fan club essentially). They were quite good and a few looked very Native even! It was interesting to see the reception of the music and ideas about Native culture in a foreign country. Then we met up with another couchsurfer at a cute little teahouse and had lots of tea and food hanging around chatting and listening to music. Stef (the couchsurfer) has us promise to come visit her in Holland while she’s there on her Erasmus project in the spring.

Rila Monastery

Rila

At Rila

Our final full day in Sofia Tiago, Janice and I wandered around some more and went in to a bunch of the churches we weren’t able to see inside of on our walking tour – such as the Hagia Sofia and the Alexandre Nevesky Cathedral. We also wandered around the Christmas Market and had some hot wine before picking up groceries for dinner and heading back to Rada’s place where we cooked pasta and had salads. We stayed up quite late talking and the next morning we all headed out to our next destinations!

Outside the culture building

Janice and Tiago

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Train into Romania and Brasov

The train from Budapest to Brasov is long – about sixteen hours. We took it overnight, leaving from Pecs earlier that day. When we got to the station we found we could only reserve tickets for the section of the trip to Budapest there and we’d have to wait to reserve the other portion once we got to Budapest. I spent the next couple of hours uncomfortably fretting over whether the ticket office in Budapest would be open at 10:00pm – luckily it was and the girl understood enough English that we were easily able to communicate. Of course the train was late – it is Eastern Europe after all – but we finally boarded and found an empty compartment to settle into. Overnight went smoothly, except for being woken up to have our tickets checked, then our passports checked by Hungarian officials, then rechecked by Romanian officials, and then our tickets checked again!

Frost on the Trees

Once we arrived in Brasov we followed the straightforward directions sent by our hostel to their front door, the only incident occurring along the way was a very friendly, very old Romanian man who spoke little English but wanted me to go to his church with him. A nice offer, but since our train journey didn’t leave me overly thankful I declined. At our hostel we met Gabriel and a little later, his wife Elena. They turned out to be the sweetest people and staying with them didn’t feel like being in a hostel at all! We were their only guests and Gabriel fed us large amounts of his home made prune brandy (very good) and told us in detail about the process of distilling it and gave us all sorts of useful advice for getting around. He treated us like his daughters, possibly because he has a daughter our age who’s away most of the year.

Brasov

All the kitties hanging out

Main Square

We wandered around the town that afternoon and got our bearings, and the next morning we headed back to the train station and took the train an hour away to Sighisoara – a pretty little town up in the Romanian mountains. There we explored the lovely Old Town Fortifications – went up the old town hall and explored the old guild towers. It was a grey day, so it made everything suitably creepy looking for all the Vlad Tepes mythology that exists everywhere in that area of Romania! We climbed up a four hundred year old set of covered stairs to the aptly named Church on the Hill where I made a new friend! As we were looking at the sign at the top of the stairs, a little black cat appeared and decided it wanted to take me home with him. After attempting to climb my pant leg, it climbed into my lap when i bend down to dislodge his claws and continued to follow us around for the next twenty minutes. I considered buying a basket and sneaking him home, but decided he really wouldn’t like the train that much. For lunch we tried a Romanian specialty – sour tripe soup – which is one of those dishes that’s so foreign at first you can’t decide if you like it or not. But as I kept eating, it definitely grew on me – pretty good food, creamy with a bit of a sour note to cut the cream and soft pieces of tripe (not the usual unappetizing texture). We took the train back into town (after being slightly harassed by the local gypsy population, who we also watched trying to run over a dog with a car) and headed out to an old school Romanian restaurant where food is served cafeteria style – just like during the communist era!

On the train

Into the old town

Tripe soup

The next day we had arranged for Gabriel to drive us to Rasnov Fortress and Bran Castle, an adventure that would take most of the morning. It ended up taking much longer as after we finished with Rasnov Fortress (an interesting set of very ruined buildings, improved by the fact we were the only people there aside from the staff), Gabriel decided to show up his friend’s brick-making operation, followed by a trip to his godmother’s house for lunch and then a trip to his friend’s farm to meet the animals! The Romanian countryside in the area is beautiful and the drive was lovely (less so the rather smelly cows who attempted to splatter us with feces. After our farm experience we headed to Bran Castle (of Bram Stoker fame). Really the castle was the seat of the former Romanian royal family and is not only a beautiful castle, but very informative about the royals and their lifestyles and fates (one went from being a princess, to an actress in America, to being a homemaker and then finally a nun – quite the career!). After our adventures avoiding tour groups in the castle, Gabriel took us o the local market where we bought smoked sheep cheese and delicious lamb sausage before trying another local specialty – think of an elephant ear but instead of sugar, it’s topped with garlic sauce and cheese. Terribly unhealthy but delicious!

Rasnov Fortress

Rasnov again

Bran Castle

Living space for the royal family

Our last day in town we spent wandering around, exploring the lovely architecture and getting lost as we tried repeatedly to climb the hill to Brasov Fortress – it’s in the middle of town but is derelict of signs directing you to its entrance, so we ended up trying three separate routes! It was a nice place to get a good view of the city and the park we wandered through later. We had an easy night, hanging out with Gabriel and watching a movie before packing up in preparation for our trip to Bucharest the next day.

Brasov Fortress

Hanging out in Brasov

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Pécs, Hungary

The next stop on our tour was Pécs, a smaller student city in the south of Hungary. It has a long archaeological record – which I like – started with the Celts, continuing with the foundation of a Roman city on the site and it was an important site of early Christianity too! So many things for my geeky interests to love!

We arrived in the city in the early afternoon and made our way to the hostel to drop off our bags before heading out to explore. We had lunch at a place with absolutely delicious food – the standout was the pear cream soup. Then we saw our usual churches, with a mosque thrown in! We explored the main street, the shopping district and went for a walk in a lovely little park where we found the entrance to part of the old bishop’s fortifications and climbed the tower (with its teeny-tiny stairs that I was desperately nervous of falling down!) to look out over the city (or part of it). We stopped for coffee in a cute shop that made their own chocolates before braving the post office. Getting stamps in a foreign country can be quite difficult and in Pécs, no one spoke English, so we had to pantomime postcard and then try to tell them where we wanted them to go (we settled on saying America, because Canada got us blank stares).

We had a early night at the hostel (due to my now full blown cold) and chatted with our dorm mates, who were Americans on their way home from teaching English in Korea. The guy had left his passport on the bus on the way into Pécs and had been obviously panicking once he arrived at the hostel and realized this. The lovely (although English challenged) hostel owner had gone down to the bus stop herself, convinced the driver to let her on the bus and crawled through the bus till she found it and brought it back for him. Hospitality here is an amazing thing – people will go out of their way to help you as best they can, even if you can barely speak to them!

The next day we did some more exploring, visiting a 4th century Christian Mausoleum, wandered around the castle some more and did some errands before deciding it was too cold outside for me and my cold, so we went to huddle in a cafe and people watch until it was time to catch our bus.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hungary (Budapest)

We took the train from Ljubljana to Budapest on a Sunday and we were supposed to make one connection in Slovenia and one in Austria before arriving. When we got to our first connection in Slovenia, we walked up to the platform only to have an old man start yelling at us in Slovene and gesturing for us to go with him. We obviously had no idea what was going on and he seemed very forceful and angry, luckily the younger man following him piped up and told us that the ‘train was out of electricity.’ This meant we had to go by bus across the Austrian border, so they herded us onto one and drove for about 40 minutes to drop us at a train station just on the Austrian side of the border. Then we sat. And waited. It took almost an hour for the engineers to get this train working, and so of course, we missed our connection in Vienna. Eventually we made it to Budapest, although much later than we had originally intended. Getting off the train we were hounded by people trying to sell us hostel rooms, although some did try to be helpful – pointing out the nearest ATM. The area around the train station was a little seedy – full of strip clubs and it was almost midnight, so we headed straight to our host’s apartment. This took a little while because a big chunk of Budapest’s metro line is under construction and we couldn’t figure out how to get into the underground! One we managed that, our host’s directions we easy and we made it to her place quite quickly. In Budapest we stayed with a Hungarian girl named Kriszta who is currently doing her PhD in gender studies and teaching English classes on the side. She was very busy, but extremely helpful, giving us suggestions and directions whenever she could. She also had an adorable but neurotic grey cat named Mono. We always enjoy the hosts who have pets for us to play with!

Mono

The next day we woke up pretty early and set off to explore the city after buying metro passes for the time we were in Budapest. We took the metro in the direction we wanted and randomly set off in a direction that looks promising. Surprisingly, considering our luck, we stumbled across the old Buda castle and fortified towns. We wandered around looking at the pretty architecture and wandered into an art gallery before heading to the fortified walls and St Mattias Cathedral. We kept walking and managed to find the Old Royal Palace and an excessive number of men on or with horses!

Buda Castle

Cathedral and Guy on Horse

Royal Palace Gates

Janice and I

Later in the day we decided to walk up Gellert Hill and see the citadel at the top. The walk looks way more difficult than it really is, and so when we came around the corner and first saw the hill we had a serious ‘oh shit’ moment, but once we started climbing, it wen pretty quickly. After poking around for awhile we wandered down the other side to the Rock Church (a church built into a cave) and then to the Gellert Baths. We hung around in the mineral baths for a few hours before walking back to our host’s place (stopping to get lost finding food) and talked with Kriszta for awhile before having a relatively early night.

Rock Church

Bridge at night

The next day we wandered to the other side of the river and tried to find the Strudel house our host had recommended, but Hungarian street names are more complicated than we thought and we got tricked! We didn’t find the Strudel house but we did find a cute little cake shop where we had breakfast before wandering over to the basilica just down the street. Then we took the metro over to the major Jewish synagogue and arrived just in time to go on a very informative tour that included a tour of the gardens where almost three thousand victims from the ghetto in Budapest are buried. Then we took the metro out to the far end of town to walk around the other major baths, the Szechenyi baths, in the city and the very pretty palace complex called Vajdahunyad Castle, well as visiting the monuments at Heroes Square. We wandered by the Opera house on the way home and poked around the lobby pretending to want tickets before going to a rather touristy restaurant with mediocre food.

Cake instead of strudel

Basilica

Synagogue

Memorial Tree

The next day we took a train to Szentendre, about an hour out of the city. We got to the town and decided to try to take a bus out the the Hungarian Open Air Museum which we looked up online. Their website claimed that they were open but once we finally figured out the bus system and took a bus another forty minutes out of town and got to the museum entrance, we learned that their website lied and it wasn’t open. So we went back to the bus stop to wait for the bus to (hopefully) come back. A little more than an hour later, with still no sign of a bus, a car pulled over and an older gentleman leaned out and said ‘Szentendre or Budapest’ and gestured for us to get in the car. He looked respectable and had museum papers in the back of the car, so we got in and he drove us to the centre of town and dropped us off, without speaking a word of English! We were so grateful to not be stuck in the middle of nowhere getting colder and colder! The rest of the day in the town we spent walking by the river, poking around little churches and wandering the pretty streets.

By the river in Szentendre

Church in Szentendre

After we made it into town we made a last ditch attempt to find the strudel place, and finally succeeded! It was good strudel – but very odd flavour combinations! Then we picked up a bit of food for dinner and headed back to the apartment because I wasn’t feeling to well… Janice had finally managed to pass on her cold to me!

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Split

Its beautiful here. The coast apparently hasn’t heard that its November, so its perfectly comfortable wearing just a short sleeved shirt out. I spent part of the morning sitting on a bench seaside waiting for Janice who was having trouble with her debit card. Croatian bank machines randomly decide they don’t like our cards and spit them out – I had the same problem in Zagreb. Everything was a little damp that morning because of the thunderstorm the night before. Storms here are so cool because you see them for hours as the roll in off the sea, slowly getting closer and closer to you. That morning, and for the rest of the day it was mostly clear, only a few clouds in the sky. Many Croats seem to be out and about – old men meeting friends for coffee, little old ladies with their morning shopping and families out with babies and small children.

Boulevard

When we arrived in Split the night before I was a little nervous about finding our way from the bus station to the hostel (based both on the trouble we had in Zadar and that the hostel owner told me on the phone it was hard to find). Luckily they had given us such good directions that we felt we already knew the way there. When we arrived, the hostel staff (Damien) greeted us and turned out to be such a nice guy. He gave us specific directions and recommendations for how to spend our time and both nights we ended up hanging out with him watching bad movies and laughing.

Our dorm was pretty empty both nights and as luck would have it, our companions both nights were Canadians – the first night was a guy from Milton and the second night we shared with a couple from Montreal. Canucks abroad… and together.

The next morning after we had sorted out the bank issue, we headed up the hill to one side of the harbour – Damien had recommended we have coffee up there. It was about a thirty minute walk up a series of staircases but the view was very much worth it. The town is so pretty and the view over the harbour was amazing. After coffee we headed down and bought train tickets for the next day before having a proper breakfast (plus more coffee) and writing postcards – hopefully everyone has gotten one by now (or the should arrive in the next week or so) If not, let me know because they may have gotten lost (or I put it in the wrong box!)

Up the hill

After our errands were done we headed up the shore to the beach and spend a few hours relaxing, watching the locals play frisbee in the water. We went wading ourselves – it wasn’t too bad! We wandered back into town to a fast food joint the Australian couple we met in Plitvice had recommended and ordered what was labeled “little fish” on the menu. Turned out to be battered, deep-fried whole minnows. Which weren’t bad – if you could look them in the eye! We followed our fish with gelato as we wandered around the ruins of Diocletian’s palace – a massive retirement home for an Emperor build in the 4th century (AD of course). Pretty sweet gig – ruler of civilization and then a sweet palace to retire to? How come there are no jobs like that anymore!?

Beach

Fried Fishies

Ice cream

But the ruins of the palace – the old gates, the Cathedral, the old temples, even parts of the mosaic floors that remain were incredible. So much fun wandering down an alley wondering where it will lead! After our adventures running around the ruins we went for dinner at a local restaurant (another suggestion from Damien) where everyone sat at big tables together. We ate fish (again served whole, thank goodness I can debone a fish!) and cevapici – they really are delicious! That night we hung out with Damien again and in the morning began our train adventures to Ljubljana!

At the ruins

Mosaic floors

Fish for dinner

Sunset in Split

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