Travel by Instagram: The twelve days of pictures

Yes, it’s a really bad Christmas pun … the twelve days of pictures is here!

We “Travel by Instagram” to get the story behind your favourite twelve photos from my Instagram account in 2015, including the truth of whether I liked the places in the pictures …

Huuuge thanks to my fellow Instagrammers for the likes, comments and follows that made this post possible. If in return my piccies give you even the smidgenest amount of “Travel by Instagram” inspiration, I’ll be – as we say in Yorkshire – well chuffed.

#12. Kotor, Montenegro

Travel by Instagram - Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor as seen from the harbour

The walled city of Kotor looks out onto a fjord-esque expanse of water, and up to the mountains. It’s special. This pic was taken in October in a post-marmalade croissant breakfast state of satisfaction, perched with my feet dangling over the harbour wall.

#11. Budva, Montenegro

Travel by Instagram - Budva, Montenegro

Budva’s old town – its redeeming feature!

My October walk from the gorgeous island of Sveti Stefan (a couple of miles south) ended in Budva. Budva’s home to a rather ugly stretch of built-up coastline, but redeems itself somewhat through its old town, pictured here. I preferred Kotor, though!

#10. Dubrovnik, Croatia

Travel by Instagram - Dubrovnik, Croatia

It was a tad blustery in Dubrovnik during my October visit!

A blustery walk around Dubrovnik’s city walls gave more dramatic photo opportunities than you could shake a stick at, and gave me a very bad hair day. Frothy-topped waves pounded against the rocks and walls that protect this proud city during my visit there in October 2015.

#9. Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

Travel by Instagram - Notre Dame, Paris, France

Contemplation in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris

I posted this pic in the wake of the Paris attacks, although Paris is sadly only one of many tragic stories of human atrocity in 2015. Kenya, Nigeria, Iraq … countries where 100s have been murdered or kidnapped without the same level of Western outrage and media attention. I took this pic back in February 2011, when I spent a couple of wonderful solo days in Paris after a work conference.

#8. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Travel by Instagram - Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana. I know. Gorgeous!

Ljubljana, you’re so pretty! One of Europe’s most underrated and difficult to spell capital cities is home to Viennese architecture, some very fine (rarely exported) wines, café culture and a rather fine castle with a nicely flirty calligraphy-writer. It’s the type of place you could take your mum – even mine, who has never set foot outside UK shores. I visited in October 2014.

#7. The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Travel by Instagram - The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

The colourful tiles and patterns of Islamic architecture at the Alhambra, Granada

I adore Islamic architecture. Tiles, geometric patterns, colourful tiles, symmetrical water features, cool patios: I am a huge fan, or – as they say in Spain – an aficionado. The architectural legacy of the Moors in Andalucia, Southern Spain, has long drawn me, and I captured this shot on my second visit to the Alhambra in June 2010.

#6. London, England

Travel by Instagram - London, England

London, baby!

I’m not sure if it was the stereotypical scene of British dual icons the red telephone box and the National Gallery which made this picture so popular, but popular it was! It was taken on a culture vulture girls’ weekend in August with my oldest school friend, just before a major downpour!

#5. Puerto Banús, Spain

Puerto Banús is about as far from my typical holiday as is humanly possible. After a week spent hiking and exploring near Ronda in May 2014, I visited for the day to catch up with a friend who was then working in neighbouring Marbella. The glitz, glamour and “look at the size of my engine” Ferrari boys provided visual entertainment for a day, but beyond that it’s the anti-thesis of where I like to spend my holidays. Millions disagree with me 🙂

Travel by Instagram - Puerto Banus, Spain

Glitz and glamour in Puerto Banus

#4. Dubrovnik, Croatia

Travel by Instagram - Placa Street, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Placa Street at sunset. Sigh.

The October sunset view from the city walls into Dubrovnik’s Placa Street was as dramatic as it was perfect.

The wide thoroughfare is a stunning spectacle, albeit one that’s manicured to within an inch of its life, or, as my boyfriend put it,“like Disney”. I loved the time I spent in Dubrovnik, but was happy to ditch its glossy magazine qualities for somewhere (aka Split) that felt more real. It still makes for a good photo, though!

#3. The Acropolis, Athens, Greece

Confession: I didn’t rate the Acropolis. I know, sacrilege. I did, however, adore Athens – bustle, food, arts scene and all. Weird, as I’d expected to spend many happy hours at its most famous landmark, and to feel a bit “meh” about the rest of the city.

Travel by Instagram - The Acropolis, Athens, Greece

The Acropolis. Half-decent picture, but I didn’t love this Greek icon.

What can I say? It was heaving – even on a Tuesday afternoon in late October 2014, overwhelmed by scaffolding, and its neighbouring namesake museum was – in my view – far more interesting. Yup, call the culture police on me.

#2. Lake Bled, Slovenia

Travel by Instagram - Bled Castle, Lake Bled, Slovenia

Light fades over Bled Castle,

Lake Bled is an hour or so on the bus from Ljubljana, a journey I spent chatting to fellow Brit and photographer Simon, who happened to have the seat next to mine. We wandered around Bled Castle, drank copious amounts of coffee, sampled the famous Bled cake (delish) and took a lot of pictures.

This one was an impromptu snap in the late afternoon as we were dashing for our bus.

And the “winner” is …

#1. Baelo Claudia, Spain

Where?

Baelo Claudia sits about 15 miles north of Tarifa, the southern-most point of mainland Spain, overlooking a dramatic beach.

Travel by Instagram - Baelo Claudia, Spain

Baelo Claudia. A photogenic place you’ve (probably) not heard of

I left my fellow yogis (I was on a yoga holiday) on the beach in Conil de la Frontera to take a trip in my super-small hire car to visit this ancient Roman settlement. Stone columns, an amphitheatre, a paddle in the Mediterranean and some rather fine grilled sardines made it a top day out back in June 2012.

Canon EOS M Compact System Camera - Silver (18MP, Includes Speedlite 90EX and EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM) 3.0 inch Touchscreen
I used Canon EOSM and Canon Powershot cameras to take the pics features here. The mirrorless EOSM has bags of features and it’s nice and compact. When I want something even more portable to “snap and go”, I use my trusty little Canon Powershot.

Have you ever taken “Travel by Instagram” inspiration and visited somewhere on the back of seeing only a photo? Have you been to Baelo Claudia?! Share your story below 🙂

Split or Dubrovnik? I know which one I’ll go back to …

I expected to love both these Croatian cities. But did I? Will it be Split or Dubrovnik that will have me scouring Skyscanner flights to return?

Split or Dubrovnik? About Split

I’m a big believer in “vibe” and Split immediately gave me a good one.

The sea-front promenade of The Riva was full to the proverbial brim with locals and visitors alike, partaking in the rhythmical caffeine-injection that is one of Croatia’s favourite past-times.

Split or Dubrovnik? The Riva, Split's promenade

The Riva, Split’s promenade

It’s a city where one of the city’s main attractions, the Diocletian’s Palace, is a living and intrinsic part of life – a home to around 3,000 people – not just as a monument to its tourists.

And where the buses to nearby attractions – Krka, Trogir – are filled with the noises of locals going about their everyday business; rather than solely of visitors click-clacking their cameras as care-freely as the Croatians consume their cigarettes.

The paths of Marjan Hill are as much choc-o-block with fitness fanatics testing the endurance of their cardio skills, as they are of visitors gazing out over the panoramic vistas of the city below.

Split or Dubrovnik? Marjan Hill

The view from Marjan Hill over Split

After four wonderful days in Split, I didn’t want to yet take sides in the Split or Dubrovnik dilemma. I couldn’t wait for more of the same in Dubrovnik.

Split or Dubrovnik? About Dubrovnik

Entering the one-way system above Dubrovnik’s old town; wiping the steamed up minibus windows clear of condensation, Dubrovnik even on a wet day was a sight to behold.

The solid fortifications of the ancient city walls met the sky and my eye-line, encasing the old town within their protective embrace.

Split or Dubrovnik? City walls, Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik’s harbour. Protected by – you’ve guessed it – walls!

Their magnificence made me think the wonderful walls of my home city of York could get a bit of an inferiority complex by comparison.

Wall envy (is that a thing?) continued later in the day, although it had balked at the entrance fee. 100 kuna? (around £10/13€/$15). In Croatia? The land where I can get a good cuppa coffee for less than a quid? Are you having a laugh?

Putting my “the walls are free in York” moment aside, Dubrovnik’s walls were absolutely stunning. Yup, even worth 100 kuna stunning. If walls were the only thing I was going on, Dubrovnik would win the Split or Dubrovnik challenge hands down!

The fading early evening light combined with what felt like a force eight gale made them even more dramatic. Stopping to capture images of swirling seas and the illuminated city streets below meant it took two hours to walk their full circuit.

And the walls were only a part of the deal.

Split or Dubrovnik? Placa Street

Placa Street at sunset. Sigh.

The sweeping entrance to the city through the Ploce Gate, treading cobbles that shone like marble, made me feel as though I was entering into a threshold of Gladiatorial combat.

The expanses of Placa Street were peppered with museums, galleries and churches; all manicured to within an inch of their pretty lives.

Dubrovnik almost felt – dare I say it – too perfect.

Or, as my boyfriend described it, “like Disney”.

Now I have no personal experience of Disney, but any image and ethos of pastel pink superficial glossy unicorned perfection tends to have me running for the hills. Even though there’s a castle.

Intending to spend three days, I hightailed it out after just one.

Split or Dubrovnik? Which should you go to?

Dubrovnik, however beautiful it may be (and it is), felt to me as though it had lost its soul. Yes, it’s glossy and pretty and shiny. It’s also crammed to the rafters with umbrella-wielding tour guides and their charges – even in October. But, more notably, there’s an absence. An absence of local people.

Split clearly caters to the tourist trade too, from the boats plying their daytrips to the Blue Lagoon to the travel agencies round town extolling the virtues of their excursions to Krka National Park.

Split is not a city where you’ll be treading the un-trodden path; or where the piano player will stop when you – an outsider – walk into a bar. But Split felt to me as though had navigated the tightrope walk between showcasing its attractions and its authenticity. It felt true to itself.

[box type=”info”]The Lonely Planet Guide to Croatia is a great trip resource. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Split or Dubrovnik? My verdict

When I go to Croatia (this was my second visit), I WANT to be surrounded by locals imbibing their diet of caffeine and cigarettes. Even though I loathe the smell of nicotine. I WANT to feel as though I’m experiencing even just a small flavour of a country; not a Disney version of it given over to the Gods of Commercialism.

And so, in the Split or Dubrovnik dilemma, it’s to the marginally less glossy but beautifully spirited Split to which I’ll return.

Should you go to Dubrovnik? Absolutely! Just don’t expect to find too much authentic Croatia within the steadfast grip of its walls.

Have you been to Split or Dubrovnik? What was your verdict?

Day trips from Split, Croatia: Krka National Park

Krka National Park, home of clear gushing waterfalls, makes a perfect day trip destination from the Dalmatian coastal city of Split, 80km south.

waterfalls at Krka National Park, Croatia

gushing waterfalls by the bucketload

Whilst Krka’s no stranger to tour groups; it’s also easy to plan your own day trip from Split, using public transport.

What to expect in Krka National Park

The main attraction of Krka is the myriad of crystalline waterfalls. These adorn the whole limestone valley, which is cut through by the Krka river.

Krka National Park, near Split

water, water, everywhere!

To get to the first and most popular set of waterfalls, you board a boat in Skradin, the village nearest the park entrance. Your Krka National Park entrance ticket includes a free return boat trip. It’s 4km each way.

Skradin, Krka National Park

the harbour at Skradin

The boats depart every hour (on the hour going, on the half hour returning); and the journey takes about 20 minutes.

If you don’t fancy the boat, you can also rent bikes to ride the track that runs aside the valley above the Krka river. There are bike racks close to the boat arrival point.

Of course, you can also walk; the track is well-maintained and isn’t a public road. The only vehicles using it are service vehicles for the park. There are views to the river, some birdlife, and plenty of verdant trees.

Once you’ve arrived at the waterfalls, there are boardwalk trails to help you get closer to the action. If you fancy a full-on immersion, you can even go for a swim.

boardwalk trails in Krka National Park, near Split

boardwalk trails … in this case through a carpet of purple flowers

The park also features a few minor side-attractions: an old watermill, an ethnography museum and an ever-popular souvenir shop.

With your own wheels, you could visit some of the lesser-trodden waterfalls in the upper reaches of the park.

For more information, visit the Krka National Park website (in Croatian and English).

When to visit Krka National Park

I visited in early October. The leaves were not quite ready to turn into gorgeous autumn hues of reds, golds and ambers. I half wish I’d been there a week or two later to capture the full magnificence of colour!

Krka National Park, near Split

verdant greens in Krka … a week or two later this scene would be full of autumn colours

Even in October, Krka was pretty busy with tour groups – although independent travellers seemed few on the ground.

Having said that, if you fancy a swim you might want slightly warmer weather!

[box type=”info”]The Lonely Planet Guide to Croatia is a great trip resource. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

How to get to Krka National Park from Split

The journey from Split to Skradin, the village adjacent to Krka, takes between an hour and an hour and a half by bus.

The bus station in Split is conveniently located next to the train station and ferry terminals; around 10 minutes walk from the old town.

English-speaking staff can give you a printout of the bus timetable for services between Split and Skradin. Buses are infrequent but seemingly reliable and punctual, with four departures each day each way during the summer.

The most useful bus to get to the park is the 08:00 from Split.* It takes just over an hour to reach Skradin. From the stop it’s a two-minute walk to the Park Information Centre, where you can buy your entrance ticket.

Returning, the 14:00 bus I caught from Skradin to Split was the inter-city Zadar – SplitDubrovnik bus, so it’s also possible to visit Krka en-route from one of these destinations.*

Outside the main summer season, the direct buses stop and you’ll need to change in Šibenik. Croatia Bus can fill you in on the details and exact dates of the timetable switchover.

*Bus info correct in October 2015.

Costs for visiting Krka National Park

In 2015, costs were:

Bus: 80 kuna each way (£7.80/€11.90/$10.50) from Split. The price seems steep, but it’s a coach-style direct bus using toll roads; which makes it a pretty comfortable journey.

Krka National Park entrance fee (including free boat ride): Mar-May, Oct: 90 kuna (£8.80/€11.80/$13.40); June-Sept: 110 kuna (£10.70/€14.40/$16.40).

Bike hire: 50 kuna all day (£4.90/€6.60/$7.40) – not necessary, but an alternative choice to the free boat ride.

Tour group cost for comparison: in the region of 200 kuna (£19.50/€26.20/$29.80), plus 90-110 kuna Krka National Park entrance fee. You only save around 40 kuna by going independently. The advantage of a tour is the opportunity to meet up with other visitors; the disadvantage is being on someone else’s schedule, not your own.

There are plenty of refreshment options in Skradin, with both restaurants and coffee shops. Prices are reasonable, at 9 kuna (£0.90/€1.20/$1.30) for a coffee.

Exchange rates correct as at 10 October 2015 and rounded up/down to the nearest 10p/10c.

Have you been to Krka National Park? Or Croatia’s other famed waterfalls at Plitivice? What was your experience?

Seven reasons I’m excited to be going back to the Balkans

From the time my train pulled into Zagreb station at 9pm on 29 September 2014, the Balkans had already made a good impression on me. And not just because I was ever-so-slightly drunk.

My gut feel – despite my gut being full of sangria following an impromptu train party with three fellow passengers – was giving me good vibes. The Balkans felt like a part of the world I was going to get along with.

Over the following four weeks as I headed towards Athens in Greece, my gut feel was proved right; so much so that I’m going back!

In less than three weeks time, I’ll be embarking on a two-and-a-bit week trip; taking in parts of the Croatian coast, Bosnia, and a smidgen of Montenegro.

Here’s why I can’t wait to go back to the Balkans.

1. The Balkans are brilliant for caressing a coffee in a street café

Back to the Balkans - cafes

Cafes line the streets of Zagreb, Croatia. And they’re populated by tall people!

A decent cup of java, sitting outside in a pavement café, and for the equivalent of around a Euro per cup – perfect! I swear to God all of Zagreb seemed to survive on a permanent diet of caffeine and cigarettes. Meanwhile, in Albania I discovered the delights of Turkish coffee. Caffeine and people watching will do the trick for me!

2. I am not a giant in parts of the Balkans!

Being five-foot-ten and with facial features regularly presumed not to be English, I don’t “blend in” in my home country, never mind anywhere else. On my further-flung travels, I tower over most Asians and Latin Americans.

When I arrived in Zagreb though, I had a shock … other people looked like me! I was not the only tall girl in the room, and I started to wonder if my grandmother had had an affair with a Croatian milkman. I’m eager to see if other parts of Croatia also offer me a rare chance to look like a local.

3. I want to see what Bosnia in 2015 has to offer

Like Albania last year, Bosnia a country I know very little about:

  • I know Sarajevo is where ice-dancing duo Jayne Torvill & Christopher Dean won gold at the 1984 Olympics with “Bolero.” The entire British nation – including eight-year-old me – was glued to the telly.
  • I gleaned info from the BBC’s coverage of the conflict of the 1990s. A war-torn country, rather than a potential holiday destination, is an image a lot of Brits still seem to have of Bosnia. I’m looking forward to dispelling some myths.
  • When I read “The Cellist of Sarajevo”, set during the 1990s conflict, it moved me to tears.

I also had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Albania last year. As it turned out, everyone (bar from one bus driver) was universally hospitable, raki was regularly offered, and the UNESCO sites and scenery were more than worth the occasional language difficulty (the Albanian for “thank you” has five syllables. Here in Yorkshire we just say “ta!”)

I’m waiting with eager intrepidation to see what Bosnia has to offer!

4. I want to see the love child of Italy and Norway, namely the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

OK, so I’ve not been to Norway, but The Bay of Kotor looks remarkably like a Norwegian fjord to me. Mountains? Check! Deep inlets of water? Check! The exception being the houses, which have that red-roofed Italian look that make you want to go and climb a bell tower just so you can look at them all from on high. I’m hoping it’ll be as idyllic as it sounds.

Back to the Balkans - the bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. Photo by Luca Zanon via Trover.com

5. There are picture-perfect islands galore!

Everyone seems to rave about Hvar, but I’ve never been one for following the crowds. Korčula, Croatia, was a recommendation from a former work colleague of mine during my Zagreb visit last year. And she’s Croatian, so she should know 🙂

Apparently there’s more than a full dose of great outdoors on Korčula to keep me occupied exploring, and it produces some stunning wines. I’m already sold.

6. The Balkans have culture, history AND scenery

The monasteries of Meteora in Greece, perched on rock massifs overlooking the valley; the castle of Gjirokaster in Albania, surrounded by towering mountains; you don’t have to look far in the Balkans for culture, history and landscapes to appear side-by-side.

Back to the Balkans - Gjirokaster

The stupendous outlook from Gjirokaster Castle

On this trip there’ll be the chance to satisfy my inner culture-vulture in Split (Croatia), learn more about the region’s history in Sarajevo (Bosnia), and explore the landscapes of Korčula (Croatia).

The Balkans offer the best of several worlds.

7. I won’t be alone … all the time

I love travelling solo, but I find travel with friends or a partner can be special too. On this trip I’m mixing it up; after the first week-and-a-bit of solo travel, my boyfriend’s joining me on Korčula.

He’s also on a mission to visit 40-countries-by-40 – something I achieved back in July and which we discovered we had in common within the first half hour of meeting. Fortunately neither of us ran off in spooked-out horror, and I’m looking forward to crossing the border to Montenegro with him as he visits his 40th country with a week to spare!

So there you have it, seven reasons why I’m excited to be going back to the Balkans. This time, though, I’ll try to arrive sober.

What makes you want to go, or go back, to the Balkans? Share your snippets in the comments below.