Leaving some money in Sarajevo. Bosnia. 2009

Before leaving on our trip I knew that I wanted to buy something from the old bazaar in Sarajevo as I knew that Sarajevo is one of the last remaining places in Western Europe were there was still a Turkish influence.

Whenever I travel I like to buy something really nice from the area where I’m visiting. 

I’ve always thought that the cheap souvenirs that are on sale in so many places aren’t worth buying and that it was much better spend much more and buy something really good. The trouble with Western Europe is that it’s a first world place and anything very nice is going to cost real money of the kind that is just too rich for my blood.

Sarajevo, because of it’s recent history of war, is a country that is struggling to get back on it’s feet and it felt particularly good to leave a chunk of money there. Places like France and Germany don’t need our money like Sarajevo does. Needless to say, I still try and get the most I can for whatever I spend and when we decided to buy a hand embossed metal tray in the Turkish style by the noted coppersmith Sahib Bašcauševic (mentioned in the UNESCO book on Traditional arts and crafts of Bosnia and Herzegovina) I was ready to haggle to get the best deal.

Sahib Bašcauševic’s work is sold in a store located in the old bazaar by the very cultivated and self assured Mido.

Mido

Mido is one of those types of people who really knows his stuff and doesn’t mind telling a person when they are in the wrong. When I said I was interested in silver plated copperware instead of the tin plated stuff, he asked me why and when I said, “because the silver plated copper was better”, he calmly but forcefully said to me, “you are wrong” and then went on to explain why.

I can imagine that not too many people can handle such a response and would’ve tossed their plaits and stormed off in a huff. Knowing that I don’t know everything helped me cope with Mido’s directness and I was glad that I stuck around to get the skinny on the advantage of tin plating over silver plating.

Apparently hundreds of copper goods can be coated with a very fine coating of silver with just a few coins electrically and very quickly, but the trouble is that the silver wears off very easily. Tin plating is much harder to do because it’s manually applied with some skill and is much harder wearing. Mido then went on to explain that although many foreigners buy his copperware for decorative purposes, it’s all actually made to be used and the value of an item was based not only on the skill of it’s decoration but also on it’s utility and not just a few microns of a semi-precious metal like silver.

When it came to haggle, Mido made it clear that he wasn’t going to knock much off the price, pointing out that the tray I wanted took over a week to produce by one of the best craftsman in the country. I did get Mido to drop his price a bit but when I pressed him to take another $25 off, he said, “that sort of money won’t make you a poor man and it won’t make me a rich man so let’s stop here”. He was right of course in the face of such truth I just paid up. To be honest, I didn’t mind at all because it was a pleasure dealing with someone who was so straight up and we all pay for things that we value more than the money that we hand over.

Sahib Bašcauševic's work

Rovinj the beautiful has fleas called Bemax. Croatia. 2009

We been having such a pleasant time during our travels over the past weeks that I’ve been wondering when probability would snap back like an overstretched elastic band and something unpleasant will happen.

Well it did, in Rovinj, Croatia.

Rovinj is a beautiful little fishing town in Istria that we hadn’t heard about until our friend in Slovenia, Robert, suggested we go there.

As we have been travelling through various countries, we have occasionally used the local tourist information offices to find and book hotels for us. All the tourist information centers that we’d come across before Croatia were government run services that benefitted both the traveler and the local businesses. As we drove through Istria on our way from Venice we noticed that there seemed to be quite a few information centers but it didn’t click with us that they we privately owned.

When we arrived in Rovinj we went into what we thought was the local tourist information center to ask about accommodation. The woman at the counter seemed annoyed that we’d interrupted her peace and quiet and was very rudely curt when we made our inquiries. When I asked about a room for one night she just rolled her eyes, whilst making a tutting sound, asked in a way that sounded like she thought we were stupid “so you only want to stay one night?  I replied that I didn’t know if I wanted to stay longer because I had no idea what Rovinj was like.

Another rolling of the eyes and shrug.

It wasn’t what she said, it was the way she said it and the body language that felt off-key.

Both Engogirl and I were both surprised at her demeanor as everyone we had met so far on this trip was a charming paragon of old world manners (no, I’m not kidding, the people of Europe, so far have been fantastic) and we just put it down to her having a bad day. I know that dealing with the public day in, and day out, can be a grind so I let it go.

The price we were quoted for the room seemed very steep and I said I thought it was expensive and asked her if there were any other alternatives, only to be told with another roll of the eyes and a shrug of the shoulders, “Rovinj and Dubrovnik are the most expensive places in Croatia”.

I then asked where the room was on the map on the wall. When she pointed, I said I’d like to go there and have a look at it. I was told, “we don’t do it that way, you wait here and man on a motor scooter will come and you follow him”.

Sure enough, within about five minutes a guy on a motor scooter turned up and we followed him to the room and were introduced to a woman called Kristina. Kristina spoke English and dealt with English speaking guests on the behalf of her mother, Maria who owned the house. The room itself was pretty ordinary but it had a glimpse of the sea, TV, air-conditioning (it was a hot day) and Kristina seemed like a nice lady. So we said that we’d stay the night, and Kristina said the payment for the room was to be made at the tourist office.

As the day cooled down we walked into the town and were surprised at how beautiful it was,

so on the way back to our room we stopped off to pay for our accommodation and told the surly woman that her town was beautiful and that we’d like to stay another day. We were told that was fine and that we could drop off the money for the room the next day.

Engogirl and I spent the evening sweating our backsides off because there was no air-conditioner control in the room and we couldn’t open the windows due to all the mosquitoes. Since it was the middle of the night when we wanted to put on the air-conditioner we thought it wouldn’t be right to wake up old Maria and try and sort things out so we endured with the heat.

After hardly any sleep during the night, we spent the next morning strolling around the very picturesque old town of Rovinj.

On the way back to our room in the late afternoon, we stopped off at the tourist office again to pay for the extra day we stayed.

As I was walking in, I overheard an American guy get a quote for an apartment for half the price that we were paying for a room. Apartments usually cost more than rooms. I asked the surly woman behind the counter how come our room was costing so much and I was told it was because we were only staying one day. I pointed out that we were actually staying for two days and Surly Woman said that didn’t matter because we said that we were only staying for one day. I then asked why I wasn’t told this when I first came in and she said because I didn’t ask and there was nothing she could about it because she didn’t make the rules.

What?!

Me: “Do you think this a good way to conduct business?”

Surly Woman (known from now on as SW): Shrugs shoulders, “There’s nothing I can do, you should have told me you wanted to stay longer”

Me: “How am I expected to make that kind of decision when I know nothing about the town?”

SW: “That’s not my problem”

Me: “So why didn’t you tell me about your pricing system when I first came in?”

SW: Shrugs shoulders, “You said you only wanted to stay one day”

In the meantime a guy in his early thirties walked in and around, behind the counter. As I was talking to SW he kept staring at me whilst doing the simian threat thing, with the upward tilt of the head and the raising of the eyebrows, we’ve inherited from our ancestors.

I asked SW if the simian imitator was the boss and she said no, but he interjected and spoke in Croatian to SW, probably asking what was going on. A short to and fro in Croatian and a with a sweep of the guy’s arm, as if to say, I’ll take care of this, he stepped forward and said, “what’s the problem?”

SW took a step back and glowered at me in a way as if to say, “now you’re going to cop it!”.

I was in the middle of re-explaining my beef when the Croatian guy held up his hand to stop me in mid sentence and said in a very aggressive manner, “so you want a discount do you?” “Well you can’t have one because you said you were only staying one night”

Me: “How do you think I feel about paying twice as much as other people for the same thing?”

Croatian guy (known from now on as Aggroman), “I don’t care”

Me: “You must be joking, do you think that word of your behavior won’t get around?”

Aggroman: “I don’t care; this is the way how we do business and if you don’t like just move along”

Me: “I’ve just come in to pay for the next night”

Aggroman, raising his voice and leaning forward in an aggressive manner: “I don’t care, just move along”

Me: “So you don’t want me to pay for the next day?”

Aggroman, raising his voice even louder and doing the simian threat thing in an even more exaggerated manner: “I can tell from your accent that you are Australian. I’ve been to you country twice and I didn’t like it.  Do you think that I could go into a hotel in your country and cause such problems?”

In the meantime SW was starting to blanch at the confrontation and about four groups of customers had walked in and then walked out again because of the ruckus.

Not waiting for an answer, Aggroman continued with, “you Australians and Americans dropping your atomic bombs all around the world, just because you speak English, you think you are better than us?”

“I don’t like you or the Americans!”

WTF?

Talk about issues?

Where do I begin?

Perhaps low self esteem brought on by cheating people has led to justifiable feelings of inferiority. It’s hard to get along with others when you hate yourself for being a lowlife cheating shitbag.

I knew that Aggroman had dived off into the deep end of La La Land and I wasn’t going to get any sense out of him so I turned to SW and said to her, “this guy’s not listening or making any sense, do you want me to pay for the night or what?”

Before SW could respond Aggroman jumped in with, “you involved me in this”

Me: “Wait a minute, you involved yourself with the; at this point I imitated the simian threat thing he was doing”

Aggroman: “You involved me!”

Me: “Keep your voice down, you involved yourself and you’re not talking any sense.”

Aggroman: “You involved me in this!”

Me to SW, “He’s not listening, do you want me to pay for the next night or what?”

At this point I thought I was going to have to defend myself as Aggroman worked himself into a lather and kept on trying to engage me further in his nonsense, but I stood my ground and said to SW, “So how much are you going to charge me for the second night?”

Aggroman tried to interject again but I held up my hand to cut him off and said, “I’m talking to her, not you; you don’t listen and I’m finished with you”.

“Don’t involve yourself anymore”.

SW reduced the bill by about 20% and I paid. Even with the reduction it still worked out that I paid just under double the going rate.

As I left, I turned to my protagonists and asked, “do you guys enjoy doing business like this?”

It was all very unpleasant and poor old Engogirl wasn’t too happy with the noisy confrontation and kerfuffle.

When we got back to our room I thought that since my feathers had been ruffled, I’d sort out the air-conditioning issue. Might as well sort out all the crap in one go since the mood had been spoilt.

I found Maria and asked her where the air-conditioner controller was. Maria explained in German (that I could understand the gist of) and very broken English that air-conditioning was an extra that we hadn’t paid for.

What?!

I couldn’t believe my ears. After paying double the going price, I was expected to pay more for what was implied to come with the room?

With a smattering of mangled German I told Maria how much I’d paid for the room and nothing had been said to me about the air-con being extra.

As soon as Maria heard how much we had paid those bastards at Bemax she crossed herself and exclaimed, “Mine Gott!” She then explained as best she could that the tourist office is a privately owned business called Bemax and they only gave her  just over half the money that we paid and that she couldn’t be expected to cover the cost of the air-conditioning.

I then went onto explain that when I came to see the room with Kristina I was shown the air-con and TV, but no mention of the extra charge was made. Maria then explained in German that if we turned off the lights at night we could open the windows and the mosquitoes wouldn’t come.

I knew it was pointless to try and explain that mosquitoes are attracted by the carbon dioxide we exhale with the poor grasp of German I possess, so I explained, using words from about four different languages that I’d paid double, had been shown a room with air-conditioning, so I expected to have air-conditioning.

I hadn’t paid double for a room to sit in the dark sweating my buns off!

Finally Maria relented and brought us the air-conditioner control.

What a hassle!

I felt like I was back-packing in 1970s Asia again.

Unfortunately, my experience with those arseholes at Bemax in Rovinj coloured the way how I felt about the rest of my time in Croatia. I’m sure I offended numerous Croatian people as I double checked bills and asked what must have seemed to be overly cautious questions about the next places I stayed in.

So, in short, if you ever go to Croatia, beware of Bemax.

Walking around the city walls of Dubrovnik. Croatia. 2009

Dubrovnik is justifiably famous as the “jewel of the Adriatic”.

Although visitors are gouged left right and centre, every step they take, the old city is an amazingly beautiful place. As you walk through the narrow, marble paved streets the high walls of the city loom over you. After a while of walking around the streets one feels compelled to go to the top of the walls and walk around the city from above.

It was hot and steep

 As you walk along the walls you get a real sense of what a daunting place is would’ve been to attack. I kept on imagining what it would be like to try and scale the walls by ladders only to by pushed off 25 meters (75 feet) to the ground. Everywhere around the walls was a long way from the ground. Some people were having trouble with the height and they stayed pressed against the ramparts as the wobbled onwards with their quaking knees.

If this is the off season i would hate to be here in the summer

Dubrovnik was packed with tourists, which wasn’t a surprise considering there were two cruise ships anchored of the old port and another at the modern dock. In the early evening the two ships anchored near the old port left and another two came in.

The cruise ships seemed so out of proportion to the old city

I spoke to some of the cruise passengers about their trip and their itinerary sounded punishing. Quite often they arrive in the afternoon at a port and leave in the morning the next day. One guy told me that the next place they were going to visit was Venice and they would only have about half a day on shore there.

It just didn’t sound like the sort of travelling I’d want to pay a small fortune to do.

The height of the wall gives fantastic views across the city.

Most of the house were made of limestone blocks

At places, the views out of the city were just as spectacular.

On the map of the old city of Dubrovnik there are marked two beaches, but they aren’t beaches like I’ve ever seen before; more of a cross between a bar and a rock pool. We could hear Dean Martin crooning as we passed by.

It is a beach but not as I know it

All very nice but also very expensive.

Dubrovnik was everything I thought Venice would be, in that it is an expensive tourist trap crawling with other tourists but the one thing you can’t take away from the place is that it’s beautiful.

If we build it, they will come. The highways in Croatia. 2009

After reading about driving in Croatia in the Lonely Planet guide, I was more than a little apprehensive.

Apparently the Croats do crazy things on the road and the roads have big potholes in them.

First off, the Croats, in general, do not drive like maniacs and secondly the roads are great. As a matter of fact, I’d say the average Croat is a slow driver, who like the Italians, doesn’t like to indicate, and the highways are amongst the very best I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Even the tiny little back roads are good.

Such great roads and there was hardly anyone else on them

As we were driving from Istria to Split both Engogirl and I felt that there didn’t seem to be very much commerce or industry along the excellent highway to justify its existence. We discussed why the road was there and speculated where such a small country with a proportionally small tax base got the money to build such extensive and excellent infrastructure.

A quick check in WikiTaxi on the laptop by Engogirl while I was driving revealed that almost half of Croatian economy is generated by the tourism industry. During the recent past with easy credit, the Croatian government decided to invest in upgrading their infrastructure. I can understand why, because it’s a bit of the old chicken and egg scenario. If you can’t get goods and tourists to their markets you won’t make any money and for that you need good roads. So I guess the Croatian government has decided to take a punt and build up their road system and hopefully the rest will fall into place.

I sure hope it works out because the poor old Croats deserve a break after all the crap they’ve been through over last 1000 years.

Get lost! Venice, Italy 2009

I’ve come across quite a few people who’ve tried to warn me off of Venice by saying it isn’t real anymore and that it’s totally packed with tourists and hardly anything else.

Various travel pundits would have one believe that the spirit of Venice is hunkered down, quivering in a hole,

just about to be extinguished by the onslaught of visitors from all around the world who swarm over their beautiful city.  

After staying in Venice for four days I can say that is rubbish. There are plenty of places in Venice that are almost deserted of tourists and the Venetians seem to be pretty happy to bustle about with mobile phones permanently glued to their ears, able to make a living.

It is easy to tell the Venetians from the tourists because they walk quickly and always seem to be on the phone

I would say that the people who say Venice is a dead tourist trap, haven’t stayed in Venice overnight for several days or never went beyond St Mark’s plazza and nearby areas.

Venice no longer has a virtual monopoly over trade with the east. Times have moved on and Venice has moved on with the times and its trade for the last couple of hundred years is now tourism.

If the only experience of Venice you have is to arrive by Vaporetto in the morning, as close as you can to St Mark’s square, you will run the gauntlet of hawkers and will feel like a lamb being led to slaughter. 

baaaa baaaaa baaaaa baaaaa

You will feel that way because you are behaving like a sheep that follows a well worn rut made by millions of others, instead of doing your own thing.

In my short experience of Venice, there were crowds only in a few relatively small areas and the rest of the city is surprisingly empty. All one has to do is avoid the area around St Mark’s and just get lost in the rest of the city.

If traveling for you is just a series of shopping excurisions and a way to tick things off some kind of  “bucket list”, then Venice can help you there, and please follow the sign posted route and leave the rest of the city for others who want to get a feel for the place away from the crowds.

Not everone who visits Venice follows the crowds

The bag sellers and the brute squad of Venice. Italy. 2009

Wherever ones sees large amounts of tourist in Venice, one will also see African guys (probably illegal aliens) selling pirated big name hand bags.

Each African has a bunch of bags on one arm and a mobile phone in the other hand.

So pretty ladies, how much do you think these bags are?

The guys selling the bags have lookouts letting them know when the brute squad is coming.

I did not think it was a good idea to take another shot

These beefy Carabinieri didn’t look like the kind of guys you would want come to the attention of, so I made myself scarce after taking this shot. I’ve had trouble taking photos of police before and I didn’t want to visit that territory again.

On a side note, if I was a legitimate bag seller in Venice, I’d put on black face and hang a sign in my window saying, “I may be fake, but my bags aren’t”.