Grant McWilliams

Travel Trip Journals


Trip journals are trip specific blogs. That is a blog about a specific trip that I've taken. I have them ordered first item first which is backward from a typical blog because it makes it easier to read about the trip from start to finish. Granted that also makes it more difficult to read the latest news when I'm on vacation because the most recent entry (the last one) will be last. But, since most people don't actually get around to reading the Trip Journal until after I'm back I think that will be ok.

Also there's a ton of them missing, this article will explain why.

Plitvice falls

In order to get to Plitvice we need to catch the 6:15 train to Zagreb then a bus to Plitvice. The original plan was to go to Dubrovnik then Split then Plitvice and only after doing that move on to Ljubljana. Because of ferry schedules we couldn’t do that so we backtracked. The train to Zagreb is 2.5 hrs then we walked to the bus station and after eating more burek took a 2.5 hr bus ride to Plitvice. Six hours later we arrived in the middle of the woods. We headed for the buildings in search of a toilet for Piper. After answering natures call we preceded to the ticket booth where we paid and headed for a boat that would take us across the lake. If you’ve never heard of Plitvice you need to get out more. It’s a park with 16 lakes in it all at drastically different elevations. This means there are waterfalls and cascades everywhere. When I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE!. Imagine Niagra falls divided up and spread over a 1000 acres or more and you get the idea. In order to navigate this natural phenomenon there are boardwalks that lead you around the lakes and falls. Sometimes there’s no other place to put the boardwalks but over the falls themselves. I brought three batteries for my camera but as of this point in my vacation two were dead so I was being very careful about what I took my camera out for.

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Lake Bled and the Julian Alps

You can get to Lake Bled on the train or bus but the train drops you about 6 miles from town where you have to catch a local bus. We’ve never had much luck with local buses so we took the out of town bus straight from Ljubljana to Lake Bled. The bus ride to Bled was as nice as any bus ride but at least the scenery was nice. We were headed into the Julian Alps which are considered to be as nice as their Austrian and Swiss neighbors. In usual bus fashion we spent most of our time driving along little backroads and stopping at tiny villages that don’t even warrant a dot on the map. We did find one very pretty town but the name escapes me so I’ll need to look on a Michelin map to see it’s name. It had houses built along the very steep banks of a river and was nice to look at. We arrived at the Bled bus stop a little over an hour later. I’ve always talked up the Let’s Go guides since the France one was excellent and the Italy one is pretty good too. The reason I mention this is the section on Croatia and Slovenia of the Let’s Go Eastern Europe had to have been written by a girl. I’m sure I’ll get backlash from saying that but the directions couldn’t have been conjured up by any logical human being. We got off the bus and the guide told us to go up the hill to the center. All of the other tourists were going down the hill and since I know a few things about physics (like the fact that water runs downhill) we choose to go down with the other tourists and we get to the lake. Maybe the “Center” is up the hill but I’m pretty sure most people have come for the lake.

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Ljubljana's mall

Today it’s been thundering and it looks like it’s going to rain so we’ve put off Lake Bled and have decided to go to something called BTC City which is a monster Shopping Mall/water park. We take a city bus to what appears to be a factory outlet mall because most everything is seperated by store. It’s not a very pretty place and not well organised either. It looks like a developer bought some land and convinced a bunch of single stores to build on plots without much more thought going into it. Since I’ve been here I’ve been wanting to get some contact solution because I was almost out. We never seen eye care products in grocery stores so we visited the drug store. Nobody spoke english so I did charades to communicate that I had contacts and they pointed me to an eyeglasses store since they didn’t carry eye care products. Who ever heard of a drugstore not having contact solution? Anyway we go there and find a lady who speaks a bit of english. They do have saline and it’s only 15 Euros a bottle. Um, that’s about $20 a bottle for something I pay $5 at home for. I buy the smallest bottle. We also find a real grocery store and buy Jade some cereal. We lunch on Burek. I don’t think I’ve mentioned Burek before but it’s the Croatian/Slovenian fast food. It’s this heavy pastry with stuff in it like meat or cheese. They either come in a quiche looking pie or a sausage shaped tube that’s coiled up. It’s actually very good and very hearty. I couldn’t eat a whole burek and they cost about $2.50. I’m exhausted after only 1 hr of shopping so we buy some cantelope (melone) and honeydew (white melone) and return home. I met a nice girl at the bus stop who needed change. I asked her why some people spoke perfect english and some don’t know a single word. She explained that they choose either German or English in school so either they can speak Slovenian and German or Slovenian and English. If I haven’t mentioned this before Slovenian is not the same language as Croatian. Come to find out she’s from Brazil and speaks Portuguese, Slovenian, English and some Spanish and is in Slovenia studying to be a vet. Add a comment

Ljubljana Slovenia days 1,2

Our first day in Ljubljana started with me wandering down the street looking for the pekarna. Every country I visit I have to learn a new name for Boulangerie. In Croatia and Slovenia it’s called a Pekarna. I haven’t seen an equivalent to patisserie though. I’ll keep looking for that. Two blocks from our apartment is a Pekarna so I headed there first only to find it closed. It was early so I thought it just wasn’t open yet. I’d told Peter that I’d pay him today and he expected Euros so I went to where the Lets Go guide said there was a currency exchange only to find it closed too. We’ve been traveling for several weeks now and it’s really hard to keep the days straight. After walking down the street further I noticed that kavas (cafes) were the only thing open, it was then that I realized that it was Sunday. At this point colorful Art Nouveau buildings started to show up so I walked in their direction and ended up in Preseren square which is really a circle in the center of the city.

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Zagreb Croatia

We landed in Zagreb the capital of Croatia. For a city with over 1 million people the airport is tiny. Apparently communists didn’t have any need to fly anywhere because the airport was about the size of your standard Greyhound station. We took a taxi to our hotel since I didn’t want to figure out the bus system. We stayed at the 4 points hotel which is one of those modern highrise hotels. I have a theory about them which is why I avoid them like the plague. The theory goes like this – the taller the building the more money they’ve made which equates to the more money you’ve lost. If they were giving you equal service to a smaller hotel they couldn’t afford to build a big building. This hotel proved my theory once again. I paid $225 for one night because there wasn’t any other places with rooms on short notice. This rate didn’t include breakfast. If we wanted to purchase the continental breakfast it would be 8 euros ea. That would be $41 total for juice and croissants! Yes the building is paid for. They had a full American breakfast with eggs for $60 total for all four of us. That is eggs, bacon, croissants and juice for $60. I kept the sixty dollars and we ate at a kebab place for $15. The walk to the city center was about 30 minutes and at first we weren’t very impressed with what appeared to be a large product of communist rule. Everywhere bland concrete buildings, simple parks and places for statues of communist rulers. I knew Zagreb was an old city but I didn’t know if the pre-communist buildings survived.  Add a comment

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Dubrovnik Croatia

Our host Doran took us to the bus station and I bought tickets to Dubrovnik. We’ve ridden this line before so we weren’t really looking forward to it. Last time Piper threw up for 4 hours so this time I medicated her. She lasted the entire trip without problems. It was long and hot on the bus to Dubrovnik. There was a couple from Belgium that we talked to quite a bit. They had a young baby and I didn’t envy them. The only other way to get to Dubrovnik was by ferry which takes 8 hrs. This would have gotten us into Dubrovnik too late so we chose the bus. Again we didn’t reserve a hotel beforehand and just relied on people offering us their homes. When we got off the bus we were practically attacked by 30 people wanting us to stay at their places. We found a two bedroom apartment about 10 minutes (see earlier note about everything being 10 minutes away) from old town and Lapad. It’s a really nice apartment with beautiful terraces. The view isn’t quite as nice as last year because someone built a big house in front of it but the apartment is nicer. We don’t get breakfast like last year so we went to the store in Lapad to get breakfast stuff.


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Split Croatia

So far all throughout Europe I’ve had to work pretty hard getting accommodations. It seems that Europe is running at capacity right now and getting hotel rooms for a decent price has been really hard. We’ve been averaging about $130 per night even after all the work. With Croatia I never book hotels. That might seem risky but things work different there – you just show up! I’ve only spent half a day in Split so I was hoping it was that way there too. When we got off the boat and through customs (Croatia isn’t part of the EU) we were greeted by a young guy asking if we needed accommodations. What he had sounded interesting so we went with him in his car to check it out. We got an apartment with washer (yay!) for $85 a night. Much cheaper than our hotels and it was a decent apartment too. It was about 10 minutes walk from Diocletians palace. Actually we’re finding out that everything is about 10 minutes walk from everything else. That doesn’t mean they really are but that’s the standard answer for distance here. If you ask someone how far Zagreb is from Split they’d probably say 10 minutes walk (it’s a 6 hr bus ride). One thing that I really like about Europe is the markets. On the way to Diocletians palace we ran into the daily Split market. They were selling clothes and stuff like most markets but there were two huge areas selling foodstuff. I’ve never seen produce quality equal to this before. If you go into your favorite store and dig through the peaches you may find one that equals the peaches at EVERY stall here. It was really eerie because the quality of the produce was extremely high in every stall. The mushrooms were perfectly white with no blemishes, the peaches were fuzzy everywhere with nary a scratch and the paprika was beautiful. This wasn’t ground paprika that we have here but real fresh paprika in the vegetable form. There was also many cheese stalls and stalls that sold meat. We bought some grapes the size of apricots and some peaches. Both were good. Prices were similar the states after you figured exchange rate and the conversion from kg to lbs but the quality was far superior. After the market we wandered around Diocletians palace which was interesting. The streets in the palace are his old hallways and the stores and apartments are his old rooms on each side of the hallways. It was so huge they basically built the city out of it.

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Florence and Ancona

The journey to Florence was an exercise in patience. We took the bus back to the Aix TGV station where we caught the next train. Buying my tickets ended up taking 40 minutes because they have this line for people who’s trains are leaving in 15 minutes. Every time a train gets close to the station they call up these people who are leaving soon and those of us who don’t know when we’re leaving get pushed back in the line. I finally got to the front and the ticket lady said she can’t book tickets to Italy so I’ll need to go to Nice and get them there. I didn’t have any choice so that’s what we did. The TGV was a double decker which was a little weird because if you don’t know TGVs lean into the corners. Leaning into the corner when your on the second floor of a 150 mph train is a little strange at first. A few hours later we’re in Antibe and the train just sits. Seems it broke down. There was a long message in French which I or the English people in front of me didn’t understand. A French lady next to me was kind enough to translate. The train had broken down and we needed to exit the train and take a TER train to Nice. Following that tidbit of information was about 300 people bailing off our train for the TER. We got a decent seat for the 10 minutes to Nice. This put us in Nice about an hour late so we missed our connection. The advice of the ticket lady was to catch the next regional train which would take us over the border to Italy. Once in Italy we could ask an Italian ticket agent if there was a train that would take us to Florence. The idea was that there may be trains that show up in the Italian computers that don’t show up in the French ones. So off we go to catch our third train of the day. We arrive in Ventimiligia 40 minutes later. I go to the ticket booth (see note above about never using the ticket booths in Italy) and even though there was a train coming in 10 minutes he refused to book us on it. He instead booked us on a train that arrived an hour from then. Ticked I went to the machine (again see note about always using the machines in Italy) and it showed the train in 10 minutes had space and was the same price – Argh! Having about an hour to burn I decided to see if I could get any money from a bancomat. Next to the ATM was a phone center so I went in and asked if I could call the hotel in Florence.

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Aix en Provence

I spent the night before on the internet looking for train tickets to Aix. It looked like the only way to get tickets for under $300 was to leave the station before 9:00am. Since we were about 50 minutes from the station that serviced south France we would have to get up at 7 or so. We managed to do so and made our way to the train station. I learned in France you always go to the window to buy tickets. In Italy always use the machines and never go to the window unless you don’t have a machine. The reason you should go to the window in France is because what you see in the machine or on the internet isn’t always what the ticket agent sees. She got me a train at 10:00 that cost less then my super early train. Still it cost us $250 with our discount card to go to Provence. That was a lot because I still hadn’t gotten paid from the company I was working for. Three hours later we’re in the middle of what looks like a desert.. It obviously gets very hot and is very dry in Provence. It reminded me of Greece. The station that we arrived in is the Aix en Provence TGV station which happens to be 20 miles from the city. After finding an SNCF attendent that spoke english we learned that we need to take a bus to the city. The taxi was 25 euros and the bus was 15. Twenty minutes later we’re at a bus station that wasn’t on our map. We had hotel reservations but they were near the old train station. It was about a million degrees and the sun was shining. Jade learned a valuable lesson right away – when in Provence don’t touch metal. He’ll remember that for a while. Anyway we walked the right direction and ended up near the train station and our hotel. Funny that we stayed in a Comfort Inn in Europe. It had a pool and decent rooms. The only difference between the Provencal Comfort Inn and the Seattle one was about $100. We were hot and tired from the journey so we layed down and took a nap. Hunger awoke us so we ventured into town. Dinner appeared in the form of a Lebanese kebab which turned out to be quite good. Everywhere we go the Lebonese food is different. This kebab had an big round pita opened up in the middle. They put kebab meat (think vertical rotiserie like the Greeks), lettuce, onions and some sort of sauce. Then they rolled it back up and put it on the grill for a minute. They were pretty good and didn’t taste like any other Lebonese kabobs we’d eaten. We found an internet cafe and logged on to see if we had money yet and we did. Finally the waiting to do anything but survive was over. We returned to the hotel at Piper’s insistance and went night swimming in the pool. By the end of the night Jade could almost float. I was holding him up with one finger. He’d be an excellent swimmer if he could overcome his fear of water.

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Days 5-7

We arrive at paris with next to no money and no working credit cards. I try to buy metro tickets and it denies my card (I though I’d try) so I pull out the remaining money I had and purchase tickets. We ride the metro to the Opera stop. When I reserved the hotel I printed the map that the hotel had on it’s site. The opera stop was the only one on there which made me think the hotel was near the Opera which would be a new area for us and exciting. We follow the map and walk past the Opera, past Galleries Lafayette, and walk for about another 30 minutes. We eventually find the hotel at the base of Montmartre. This is the area where the Amelie movie so a lot of Americans want to stay there. Moulin Rouge is also in this area. The reality is it’s full of sex shops, tatoo parlours and dance clubs. The main street is Pigalle which the American soldiers from WWII nicknamed “Pig Alley” because of it. This is basically the red light district. The hotel room was actually two rooms connected and it cost us $140 per night. Had I known it was in Pigalle I wouldn’t have reserved it…. Lesson learned. They didnt ask for money so we were thankful to even have it. It had Internet in the “lobby” which was an 8 by 8 room that included the reception desk and the stairs which tells you how much room was left for the Internet. The price was 8 euros per hour which was hiway robbery but less than a metro ticket to a better one.

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Travel Trip Journals