Brussels Croatia Venice 2014 Trip
I flew to Brussels with Jet Airways. The direct flight left Toronto early evening on a mild summer day near the beginning of June. The weather had been chilly in Toronto this summer. I checked the weather forecast for our destinations in Europe. It looked nicer than in Toronto but they were also expecting some chilly days. Always determined to travel light, I packed some short sleeves and some thin long sleeves with good breathing fabrics. In case it got cold, I would just layer up with all I had in the luggage and should be warm enough. The last thing I wanted to do was to lug around warm clothes that I could not use in hot weather. We looked for a light thin jacket that would function as a windbreaker and shell. We luckily found the exact one on sale. That thing got used many times on the trip.
Jet Airways is an Indian company. The final destination of the flight was India and Brussels was a stop-over. Indian food was served only to those who asked for it as a special meal while booking. Little secret I learned. So if you love Indian food like me and particular about your food, pay attention to special meals when you book. Overall, I would say the food and service on the flight was good.
We landed in Brussels on a clear morning. After eating and touring the airport, I took the train from the basement to the Midi train station in town. I noticed most of the staff directing the passengers at stations were young ladies. The journey took about 40min. The airport was a bit out of town. We passed by some countryside before entering the city. The Midi station was one of the main train station in Brussels and had connections to many major European destinations. My train to Germany would leave from the station 2 days later. I left my luggage in a coin locker. They were clean enough, reasonably priced and easy to use. The benefits of traveling light is that you only need smaller and cheaper lockers.
Then I looked in and around the station. There were some food court style places to eat inside and some restaurants outside of the station. There was at least one convenience store in the station.
I bought a 24hr pass and took the metro to the apartment motel. The flat was only a few stops away from Midi in Anderlecht which was a suburb on the southwest of Brussels. It looked to be an older part of the city with a mixture of row homes and wooded residential areas. The streets looked a little worn but tidy and safe. There were a mixture of businesses and residences among the row homes. As I walked through the streets in the morning, there were shopkeepers opening up and parents walking the kids to school.
Like many European cities, Brussels has a good network of metro lines that let you visit popular tourist attractions with ease, especially if you are willing to walk a little. I made good use of my metro pass and roamed around the city. The skies were dark but the rain held off until I was ready to head back at the end of the day. The weather was cool and nice to walk around. The thin wind breaker I had brought was just about right and got used regularly. By the end of 2 days in Brussels, I managed to see a few selected important sights and a friend who lived and sailed with us in Toronto for a few years.
Manneken Pis is a famous attraction for many tourists. Many restaurants and shops in the area were named after this famous statue. There were even some live size replicas in front of some restaurants. So you might be expecting a big monument. When I got there, it was so small that I almost walked right by, had it not been for the circle of tourist taking pictures.
After 2 nights in Brussels, it was time to take the train to Bremen, Germany. A French Thalys train took me to Cologne or Köln where I had to change to a Deutsche Bahn train to Bremen. They were equally comfortable and quiet. Both trains had wifi but free on Thalys and not so on DB. It rained heavily on the journey but stopped just before I got to Bremen.
While staying in Bremen, my cousins and I made day trips to Hamburg and Bremerhaven both of which had big sea ports. Bremerhaven is a small city with a large port. We visited the German Emigration museum which showed the life of people who left home to explore the world and those who came to make a new home. The rooms were made to feel like the insides of ships they sailed in. Quite interesting.
After a few days there, I took another train to Munich where I stayed over one night to catch the bus to Croatia. The weather was nice and dry in Munich and even a bit on the hot side. I stayed at a cheap hotel close to both the main train station and the bus terminal. The neighborhood seemed a bit questionable but safe enough. There was no air-conditioning in the room, but the weather was just right to sleep with the windows open. So it worked out OK. By this time, I was feeling a bit of ethnic-food withdrawal. After arriving in Munich, I found out that it was their long weekend and most of the stores and businesses were closed. I was so happy to find a small Turkish fast-food joint at the bus terminal. I had a lamahcun (pronounced lamahjun) which was a thin crust meat pizza. They rolled it like a donair with fresh vegetables. As far as I know there is no dairy or cheese in it. For an extra Euro, they added some grilled chicken in it. It was so good and I had just discovered another favorite food! I have been trying to find a good lamahcun shop in the Toronto area since I returned but no luck yet. I have found better ones in Ottawa though.
The next day I caught the Deutsche Bahn bus to Zagreb early in the morning. It was a cool sunny day with clear skies. The journey took roughly about 8 hours. The bus was fairly clean and about 70% full. There was free wifi and a toilet on-board for small business. Surprisingly to me, the wifi actually worked albeit a bit slow. The ride was quite comfortable and I did not get bus-sick. I saw nice green landscapes of small towns and farms against the backdrop of the Alps. We stopped twice for food and washroom break. As usual, the food at these rest stations was very expensive. I felt 15 minute stop was a bit too short for a sit-down meal. Most of the passengers just got take-away foods. However, I saw the bus crew and a few others sitting down to eat.
The bus stopped once at Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. It was another nice old city. Some people got off and some came on. Then we continued to Zagreb. As Croatia was already in the European Union, I did not expect any immigration control anymore at the Slovenian-Croatian border. But I was wrong. Apparently, they still had to sort out some details. So we had to go through passport control as before. I arrived at Zagreb about half hour behind schedule which I thought was still very good for a bus traveling that far during the day. Irena’s family was there to pick me up. Then we went to Zagreb airport to pick up Irena.
While we were at home in Čakovec for over 2 weeks in June, the weather was a little cool most of the time and rained a number of times. On some sunny days, we visited fairs in nearby towns.
We were looking for some day trips and decided to go visit Slovenia. We visited Lake Bled (locally Blejsko jezero), Lake Bohinj (locally Bohinjsko jezero) and Ljubljana. Both lakes are in the Alps.
Lake Bled is a popular tourist destination in Slovenia, located by the town of Bled. There is a church on the island in the middle of the lake. There is also a hiking trail around the lake. It was my kind of hiking trail in that the ice-cream shops were just by the trail. We saw rowing facilities and boat rentals for visitors.
Lake Bohinj is the biggest lake in Slovenia and the location of the well-known Vogel ski resort. We rode the cable car to the top of the mountain. It was one of the longest cable car rides for me. The natural scenery was spectacular. From the top of the mountain you can see the lake and the snow capped Alps further away almost touching the clouds. We saw some skiing facilities at the top. Since we were there in the summer, we just had to imagine the snow and busy bodies in the skiing season. I got the impression that it was not a new bling bling place, but a mature place for the general public. More information about the ski resort is available here:
The ski passes are very reasonable compared to what we have to pay in Ontario. In spite of the overall height, there seemed to be easy trails to walk down at your own pace. If we weren’t pressed for time, we would have hiked down. Too bad we were not there during the ski season. I would definitely like to go there when I visit Croatia in the winter.
After returning from the mountain, we had lunch at a restaurant near Lake Bohinj. I had the Hungarian beef goulash. It was so good and the portion was also generous. Unfortunately, we forgot the restaurant’s name to recommend.
After lunch, we continued to Ljubljana. We parked in the city near a canal and not far from a castle on the hill. It was a well-kept older area with many modern shops of all kinds. It was a place people come to relax, walk around and have something to eat. There were many bridges and nice walking paths along the canal. Ice-cream shops, cafes and shady trees were there to help you recharge whenever you needed. The shop keepers were used to tourists and spoke good English to help you out.
A street food fair was going on at a square when we arrived. There were local food as well as Asian and Middle-eastern foods available. The vendors seemed to be a mixture of local restaurants and families. It was a fun place to hang out. I wrote a bit more in detail about the middle-eastern food we ate there on a food page. We had dinner there and drove back home to Strahoninec, Croatia in the evening. Unfortunately, we did not get to spend much time in Ljubljana. Based on what I could see from the highways, it seemed to be a city with a good mixture of old and new things. They are usually interesting places to visit and explore.
On this trip to Croatia, I discovered a salted bread stick. It has a chewy texture similar to a bagel or a soft pretzel and very popular among students. It worked for me as I had always liked salty simple starch. I also learned to eat a deep-fried flat bread at an open-air concert in Čakovec called lagohs. You can have it with either garlic and salt or sugar. Simple starch with salt or sugar in different forms seems to be popular all over the world.
During the rest of our stay in Strahoninec, the weather was generally cool and sometimes wet as well. I got to use pretty much everything I had packed. I was quite proud of myself that I had everything I needed but not more. After about 3 weeks since I had left, we began our way back to Canada slowly.
We went to Rovinj on the Adriatic coast by bus. We had to change once at Zagreb main bus terminal. The bus was not crowded and the ride was smooth. We left early in the morning and got to Rovinj early afternoon. Rovinj is a coastal touristy town with interesting old buildings and history. The busy town center and the bus terminal are very close to the waterfront where the action is. The waterfront is lined with many restaurants, hotels, beaches, harbor, boats, makers of holiday and seekers of thrill.
There were also glass-bottomed boats for tourists to look at the marine life at sea. I would not know who would pay money to look at fish from a rocking boat when there were so many interesting and good looking things to look on land for free! There was a pretty nice walking path along the waterfront with swimming beaches and shower stalls for the public. Shallow water and rocks kept the water relatively warm in cool air.
On the edge of the waterfront was a market. You could walk up the hill on many narrow cobble-stone paths to more restaurants, cafes and houses. This was the older part of the town of course.
At the top of the hill was a big church. There was a good view from the church looking over the sea on one side and the harbor and town on the other. Some restaurants on the hill side also had nice patio tables with the water view.
This part of the Adriatic coast had much Italian influence. Italian restaurants were abundant. After some internet research, we went to one with lots of good reviews, off the busy tourist area. We were quite disappointed. It reminded us that you should always read these internet reviews with a grain of salt.
The next day, we took a day trip to a bigger coastal town called Pula. It was used as an administrative outpost by the Romans. A coliseum and other administrative buildings were still there as tourist attractions.
The bus terminal was within walking distance to the coliseum, the main port and an area with many restaurants. There were some tourist ships as well as a considerable amount of commercial shipping traffic at the Pula port. Only a few blocks away from the water front were cobble-stoned streets with older buildings and restaurants. We were able to find a mom-and-pop style pasta restaurant and had a very good lunch. Even though it had some tourist attractions, Pula seemed to have other businesses and industries that operate all year round. We caught the afternoon bus back to Rovinj.
We arrived early the next morning at the ferry dock in Rovinj which was not far away from the motel. We stopped to pick up some snacks at a local bakery near by. We saw no ferry when we got to the pier. First we thought we were just too early. Then we asked around few people near by and found out that the ferry no longer docked there! It was docked at another pier on the other side of the market. It pays to read the fine print on the ticket! It was a 15 min brisk walk through the streets. Fortunately there was another passenger who knew the way and we were rescued. We arrived at the ferry on time.
The total cruising time to Venice was about 3 hrs with a quick stop in Poreč. The seas were very calm and flat in the morning. The ride was fast but smooth and comfortable. The catamaran ferry was being managed like an aircraft. The down side was that we could not get out on the deck to take pictures. The windows were clear to see through at departure, but quickly got washed by spray once the thing got going. Not that there was much to see except water and more water. We arrived at Venice early afternoon.
We were lucky with the weather again in Venice. We arrived on a sunny June morning. The ferry docked at the San Basilio pier. We had to wait for a while after the ferry docked to get the luggage. After getting the immigration stamp in a building by the dock, we were on our way. With the help of the GPS, we were able to walk to the bus terminal which was at Piazzale Roma, stopping and taking pictures about every other block on the way.
We took the airport bus to the motel which was one stop before the airport. Since it was the airport bus, we bought the 6Euro tickets. We later learned from the locals that we needed the ordinary 1.30Euro ticket because we did not really ride to the airport. Oh well, you can’t win all the time. There were many people on the bus with luggage. We met an American couple with 2 small kids who had just arrived. They were also going to a hotel near ours. The phone GPS enabled us get off the bus at the correct stop. Two of us and a few other passengers helped the couple get off with all their luggage and kids intact. It was a small operation.
Venice was a pleasant surprise to us. We had expected a Disney-like tourist town with inflated prices and people to wrestle you into shops and restaurants. The reality could not have been further from it. It was such a laid back and relaxing place. True, the accommodation was expensive. But the food was very reasonable and quite good. I am sure there were many expensive places. At the same time, it was quite easy to find small places with very good food for a reasonable price everywhere. We paid less for better pasta than near our hotel on the mainland! They charged exactly what was on the menu and nothing more. The highlight for me was the little bird that came by to share my dinner.
Since we had only 2 days, we spent most of the time in Venice proper ie. the island. We saw mostly the waterways whenever we read about Venice on the web or magazines. We did not know that most of the roads on the island were cobble stone walkways without vehicles. We saw only pedestrians and not even bicycles. The streets were quite narrow in many places. When we were walking in between buildings, it was not very hard to be in the shade. There were also many foot bridges connecting the many islands which made up Venice. We did not get to find out what it would be like to navigate at night. It was quite easy to find your way around during the day. It helped to have a tourist map with street names. On the ground, the streets were well marked for tourists. There were many signs directing you to main points of interest such as the water bus stops, train, and bus stations. The GPS sometimes lost the satellite signal because the streets were too narrow compared to the height of the surrounding buildings.
It was an excellent place to stroll around. Even though there were crowded places, we would also find alleyways and quiet open squares with shady trees. It was quite laid back and relaxing. Whenever we felt like taking a break, we could always sit in the shade under a tree or beside a building. Nobody bothered us. We would like to go back in the off-peak season for cheaper accommodation and stay longer on the island. For now, we could only imagine how nice it would be to get a small room, cook your own food and hang around to relax. We never saw a supermarket on the island. However, since there were people living there and staying long-term, we assumed there must be some.
One thing that I found amusing in Venice was how efficiently they used small tight spaces to live and run businesses of all kinds, including restaurants. It was a bit like doing things in a submarine. For me it was fun to see. I have always liked making small places work. They were doing this so well that the customers did not feel claustrophobic, or at least I did not think so. The city is also extremely efficient at moving the visitors going through the city. Considering the number of people traveling through Venice the train station looked a little small. However, it did not look crowded at all.
At the end of the second day in Venice, as we got back to the Piazzale Roma to catch the bus, it started raining a little. We timed it well. It rained most of the night but stopped at dawn just before we left for the airport. My flight left about 7 in the morning which meant I had to be at the airport at about 5. That was before the buses woke up. Since it was only about one km to the airport, we decided to walk there. It worked out just fine. Overall, we had nice memories of the Venice proper and would probably be back in the future to spend more time.