London vs Melbourne

As the time on my UK visa began to run out I started mentally weighing up the benefits of living in London versus living in my home town of Melbourne. The hassle of getting a new visa meant I was unlikely to do so in order to keep living in the UK, even if London’s benefits did end up outweighing Melbourne’s, but it was something to think about. At the end of the day, there are undoubtedly things I will miss about London when I eventually settle back into Melbourne, and while the conveniences and benefits of London may outnumber those I can list for Melbourne, I think the Melbourne ones carry more weight. Some of the benefits are quite obvious and some were quite unexpected: listed below in no particular order just for interest’s sake!

Pros of living in London:

  • Several of our very closest friends live in London
  • Lots of friends and family came to visit
  • Cheaper and easier to travel to Europe (and even the west coast of the US and Canada, although we never ended up taking advantage of that)
  • Cheaper to fly London-Aus-London than it is to fly Aus-London-Aus
  • Cheaper and more fashionable clothes and shoes
  • Cheaper food and alcohol
  • Lots of sales and specials – something is always 2 for 1 or 3 for 2, or even buy 1 get 2 free (Pringles and easter eggs I’m looking at you)
  • To combine the last two points: cocktails are ½ to ⅓ the price in Aus and usually 2 for 1
  • Junk food is super cheap (chocolate, crisps, biscuits) and there’s a huge variety (also British jelly babies are better than Australian ones)
  • Bigger variety of juice flavours
  • Bigger variety of beers, ales and ciders
  • The convenience of being able to buy alcohol from supermarkets and off-licences
  • Continental mini marts – being able to buy cheap international food
  • Retailers such as M&S (for the food) and H&M (for the clothes)
  • Lovely cosy, independent pubs (when you can find one amidst all the chains and franchises)
  • The fact that you can get tea or coffee at pubs
  • Variety of hot alcoholic winter drinks (mulled wine was only just starting to make an appearance in Melbourne pubs when we left in 2010)
  • You can almost always split bills at restaurants, even if everyone is paying by card!
  • Centuries more history: castles, cobblestones, Tudor houses, Roman ruins…
  • Lots of free, excellent museums
  • Fast, cheap, uncapped Internet
  • Cheap mobile plans
  • Bigger variety of stage productions with bigger names and cheaper tickets
  • Some great TV (but there’s also some really rubbish TV)
  • Easy to get anywhere by public transport
  • Frequent, cheap buses (and the fact that they’re double decker :)
  • Real and distinct seasons (the coming of spring is genuinely exciting, and London really comes to life on a proper summer’s day)
  • Snow and the novelty of having a cold Christmas (where the traditional image of Santa actually makes sense ;)
  • Most flats are rented furnished (ideal if you’re only going to be in the country temporarily – you don’t need to ship over or buy and furniture and whitegoods which obviously saves a lot of money)
  • You don’t have to do an annual tax return (because PAYE tax is more carefully monitored and adjusted throughout the year)
  • Free and fast Amazon.co.uk shipping
  • Post offices are open and mail is delivered on Saturdays
  • Wide variety of magazines
  • Argos (it might seem lame to include it but it’s cheap, convenient, and there’s nothing like it in Aus)
  • Possibility of bumping into actors and celebrities

Pros of living in Melbourne:

  • Family – in particular, being able to hang out with my Mum and go cycling with my Dad
  • Our cat, Jonty
  • A smaller, less crowded, more easily digestible city
  • Friendlier, less passive aggressive people who are more upfront and relaxed (I never appreciated this enough or even realised it until I lived in London)
  • Less bureaucracy and fewer middle men
  • Clean, non-chalky water that doesn’t stain teacups or leave crunchy bits in your tea
  • More cycle-friendly: flat, less traffic, more bike baths
  • More sun (having always been a winter person I didn’t think I’d miss it, but I did!)
  • Houses are generally newer and less likely to develop mould
  • Proper air conditioning
  • A vibrant creative arts culture: small galleries, exhibitions, street art
  • Lots of great, high quality cafes
  • Fewer chain/franchised restaurants (it’s only really fast food that is franchised in Aus, most proper restaurants are independent – unlike the UK where independent stores are the exception)
  • Quality of restaurant food is consistently higher
  • Cheaper and more authentic Asian food
  • Great, fresh ingredients, more of a “scratch cooking/baking” culture (cooking from scratch is rare enough in the UK that they’ve actually given the concept its own name)
  • Easier to get cheap and good quality red meat
  • The Queen Victoria Market
  • Confectionary and savouries you can’t get in the UK (Cherry Ripes, Pizza Shapes, etc)
  • Lovely cinemas (Nova, Kino Dendy, Palace, the Astor)
  • Easier to travel to Asia and New Zealand
  • There’s also lots of variety just travelling around Australia itself: city, beach, countryside, farmland, mountains, desert and rainforest all in one country
  • Higher interest on savings accounts (4-8 times as much as the UK)
  • 2 hour public transport tickets (vs paying per trip in London)
  • Knitting yarn is actually easier to come by (I thought it would be the other way around), and cheap yarn shops like Spotlight are easier to get to
  • Wider roads

Most of the London pros come from the fact that the population is larger. Given that this fact was the root of my main frustrations with London (so very crowded and people being generally unpleasant to each other as a result – on the street, on public transport, at work) I feel confident that I can conclude Melbourne’s better quality of life wins overall.

Travelling up through Slovenia and Italy

Slovenia came next on our itinerary after Croatia and was particularly exciting for the simple fact that we’d never been there before. It did not disappoint. We spent a few days each in the capital Ljubljana, the seaside town of Piran, and the famously beautiful Bled, ducking into Italy to see Trieste in between the last two.

Ljubljana

Everyone I knew that had been to Ljubljana said it was lovely but one or two days would be enough. It probably is if you just want to whip around the main sights, but we were enjoying our accommodation so much we could easily have spent more than the 3 nights that we did. I really do find that your accommodation plays a big part in your enjoyment of a particular place. Our accommodation in Ljubljana was our second airbnb venture and we were once again delighted. We stayed with a lovely person called Katja who has a beautiful flat walking distance from the train station and the centre of the old town and it was just nice hanging out and chatting about life. We did get around to some sightseeing as well though – nice things to do in Ljubljana are:

  • Wander around the old town, near the river. Particularly explore the cobbled backstreets which are almost pedestrian-only (i.e. watch out for bikes!).
  • Hike up to the castle (or take the funicular if you’ve run out of energy). You can get a pretty good view of the city but for the best view it will cost €6 to climb the castle’s tower. That ticket also gives you entry to a short film about the castle’s history and an exhibition about Slovenian history. If you don’t want to spend any money you can still wander around the rest of the castle complex which includes a few free art exhibitions.
  • Visit Metelkova, particularly during the day so you can take some good photos of the cool street art and sculptures.
  • Check out the Ethnographic Museum. This was recommended to us by a guy we met on the train from Zagreb to Ljubljana and it really is excellent – we spent several hours there and still didn’t see everything. (If you’re limited on time start on the top floor and skip the middle floor.)
  • Good places to eat: Julija’s is in a picturesque street and serves authentic Slovenian cuisine (some of the best goulash I’ve ever eaten – also try the zlikrofi). Svetilnik does huge, delicious pizzas – one between two is plenty.

Along the Ljubljanica River

Piran

It’s well worth the effort to visit the incredible Skocjan Caves on the way from Ljubljana to Piran!

Piran is a popular summer holiday destination for Slovenians and Italians but apart from that it’s not particularly touristy. It’s a beautiful seaside town on a finger of land that extends into the Adriatic. It’s just nice to wander the narrow, pedestrian-only streets lined with warm-coloured houses covered in wooden shutters, to stroll along the seaside promenade at dusk, or to climb the hill that leads up to the Church of Saint George at night.

We stayed at Miracolo di Mare, a B&B which was out of our normally very tight accommodation budget for this trip but there weren’t any cheaper alternatives available at the time. It turned out to be well worth it though for the friendly staff, excellent breakfast and perfect location. When we weren’t wandering around town we grabbed a spot on the concrete near the water’s edge and alternated between sunbathing and swimming in what is a contender for the best water we’ve swum in… ever. Super clear and full of fish and other interesting things to look at, plus you can swim out quite far and get some decent laps in.

If while in Piran you get tired of Italian-esque food you can get some cheap and filling Bosnian eats from Sarajevo 84.

Piran's harbour

Trieste

Normally you can get to Trieste from Piran by taking a bus to Koper and then a second bus to Trieste. But not on Sundays. Which is when we were trying to get there. We ended up with no choice but to take a taxi which we haggled down to €30 (the final price was €38 on the meter so we did pretty well). We later discovered that we could have gone by boat for only €7… ah well!

At first Trieste was a little disappointing after Piran, but it had grown on us by the end of our 2 night stay. Also, we found that a lot of the eateries are a cut above your standard Italian food. We had some excellent salads at a cafe near Piazza della Borsa (possibly the end of Via San Carlo) but unfortunately I can’t remember its name, which isn’t very helpful. Another place which I do remember the name of is Super Bar Stella, who serve generous toasted piadini and focaccie, but equally unhelpfully I can’t seem to find their address. Okay, but I can give you the website of a great place for dinner: it’s called Un Bacio Sul Canale (“a kiss on the canal”). They served us complimentary sparkling drinks (possibly Prosecco) to start as well as digestifs to finish, their menu was quite unique, and the food delicious (especially the homemade melon semifreddo ahh!).

Piazza della Borsa, Trieste

A nice thing to do in Trieste is to go for a ride on the Opicina Tramway, a unique combination of tram and funicular railway. (A similar experience to riding the #28 tram in Lisbon – but this one is even steeper!) Get off at the stop Obelisk (indicated by the big obelisk right near the stop – if you miss it you can easily get off at the less interesting Opicina terminus and walk back) for a great view of Trieste. If you have time and it’s not overbearingly hot (like it was when we were there), there are some lovely walking and cycling paths starting from Obelisk – one of them will take you to Prosecco in about an hour. If you want to ride, you can hitch your bike to the front of the tram and it will carry it up to the start of the trails with you.

There’s a long “beach” (concreate shelf next to the sea) a short bus ride from the centre of Trieste called Barcola but the water is quite rough and rocky. The same bus (#36) will also take you to Miramare Castle.

Bled

As far as Bled is concerned, this says it all!

Bled Island and Castle

It surpassed all my (actually rather high after so many recommendations from friends) expectations. It is such a beautiful place, and there is so much to do there and in the surrounding area. For a perfect summer’s day in Bled I highly recommend hiring bikes and riding up to Vintgar Gorge. Walk along the trail and back then ride back down into Bled and head for the lake. Ride around to the rowing club (Veslaški Klub Bled) and grab a spot on the grass to spend the afternoon. Whenever you need to cool off jump from the wooden decks into the clean, clear, fresh water. You could even try swimming out to Bled Island. Have a traditional Slovenian meal for dinner at Gostilna Murka then walk up to Bled Castle after 8pm when you can wander in for free and admire Bled’s twinkling evening lights.

[more photos]

Thanks for 2000 visits!

Over 2000 people from 68 different countries have now found and visited my little blog by one way or another. My favourite thing to see when I check my WordPress stats are search engine terms entered by people that are looking for a solution to the same problems I’ve encountered myself and partially wanted to start this blog in order to share the solutions I ended up piecing together (such as one two three four). If any one of those 2000 people found anything on this blog helpful then I’m delighted. Same goes for my travel-related bits and pieces, if any part of those has been useful for any of my visitors then that is totally awesome. :) Thanks for stopping by!

Facilitating a friendly breakup between iPhoto and Flickr

In the 6 years I’ve been using Flickr I’ve used a variety of different methods to upload photos: the Uploadr for both PC and Mac, the updated web interface, and most recently, iPhoto. Uploading via iPhoto 11 seemed great at first (and a huge improvement over doing so with iPhoto 9): I could add all my titles, descriptions, tags and (corrected when necessary) location data, hit share, wait for the upload, then I was done.

Then the problems started.

I knew that iPhoto was not just uploading to Flickr, but syncing with it. I understood that if I deleted a photo from iPhoto it would also disappear from Flickr, but this wasn’t going to be a problem because I didn’t intend to delete anything from iPhoto if I liked it enough to put it on Flickr.

What was a problem was that iPhoto was happily syncing files in the other direction – copying images from my first 5 years of Flickr use to my SSD. Duplicating photos I already had stored on my laptop and consuming valuable SSD space. This might have been useful if it was pulling all the titles and descriptions too, but it wasn’t. When I stumbled across the duplicated photos (by viewing the last image in the Photos view and hitting the right arrow key) I checked the info and all I got was a message that said “This photo was downloaded from your Flickr account.” I tested what would happen if I deleted one of the downloaded photos: it got wiped from Flickr too.

The next problem was that one day I noticed all the photos I’d uploaded via iPhoto were now appearing in a random order within their sets on Flickr. Not the order I uploaded them, not chronologically, not any order that made any sense. Since I hadn’t touched the sets in Flickr I could only surmise it was iPhoto doing something weird and tricksy behind the scenes.

These two problems being annoying and out of my control I decided to sever the link between iPhoto and Flickr. The problem with this was I’d read quite a few horror stories about entire Flickr collections being wiped when people tinkered with this connection. But, happily, after quite a lot of research (and a surprising amount of angst) I’ve been able to separate the two without losing anything (apart from the duplicates I wanted to ditch). This is how I did it:

1. BACK UP THESE TWO FILES:

Macintosh HD/Users/[username]/Pictures/iPhoto Library.photolibrary
Macintosh HD/Users/[username]/Library/Preferences/com.apple.iPhoto.plist *
(If you’re using Lion you’ll need to make the Library folder visible first.)

2. Flickr:

Go to the Sharing & Extending section of your account Flickr account. Scroll down to “Account links” and click “edit”. Find “iPhoto OS X” and click “Remove permission?” next to it. Tick the checkbox and confirm your selection on the next page. Now iPhoto no longer has the power to do anything to your Flickr photos.

3. iPhoto:

Open your iPhoto preferences and choose “Accounts”. A message like this one will likely pop up:

iPhoto is no longer authorized

Hit “Cancel”. Select your Flickr account in the Accounts panel and hit the minus button underneath it. A message like this one should pop up:

Are you sure...

It’s only talking about removing the photos it downloaded from Flickr, it won’t touch images in your normal iPhoto library that you uploaded to Flickr. Leave the checkbox empty and hit “Remove”. The photos downloaded from Flickr will appear in iPhoto’s trash – empty it to get rid of them. (Then empty your OS trash for a permanent delete.)

Now your Flickr collection is safe, the duplicates are gone, and iPhoto and Flickr will have nothing more to do with each other. Hooray!

But, how now to upload anything? I think I’ll most likely be investing in Flickery which allows you to export your edited photos (with all their metadata) from iPhoto and do a one-way upload to Flickr without any of this syncing nonsense. (Uploading is also just a small part of what Flickery does, you can download a free trial via the website to check it out. On top of all this, the developer is super quick to respond to any queries and very helpful. )

* Why back up the preference file? This is where iPhoto’s connection with Flickr is saved. While experimenting with the above steps I restored my original iPhoto library after step 3 because I thought something had gone wrong. (It hadn’t.) This meant that the photos downloaded from Flickr were back but mostly hidden and unable to be deleted, and as far as iPhoto’s preferences were concerned the link with Flickr was already gone so I couldn’t repeat step 3 to push those downloaded files into the trash again. After much hair tearing I hit upon the idea of taking the iPhoto preference file from my external back up and copying it over the one on my laptop. This enabled me to go through step 3 again and delete those little suckers for good (freeing up almost 1GB of SSD space)!

Visiting Škocjan Caves on the way from Ljubljana to Piran

After a random guy on the train, our host in Ljubljana and a friend from Melbourne all raved about Škocjan Caves we decided we’d have to go there. Since the caves are situated roughly between Ljubljana and Piran, and Piran was our next destination after Ljubljana, they seemed like the perfect stop over on the way.

The actual logistics of achieving this by public transport turned out to be surprisingly complicated. In case you want to replicate our journey, here is the only combination of public transport I could work out where it was possible to make all the necessary connections:

08:12 - 09:49 train from Ljubljana to Divača
10:00 - 10:07 free shuttle bus from Divača station to the caves
11:00 ~ 12:30 guided tour through the underground canyon
12:30 ~ 14:00 self-guided walk following the Reka River through two more caves
14:00 - 15:15 kill some time at the info centre
15:23 - 15:30 last free shuttle bus back to Divača station
15:30 - 17:15 kill some time at Divača
17:19 - 18:08 train from Divača to Koper
18:30 - 19:16 bus from Koper to Piran

Divača station

Some things to bear in mind

  • Buy both train tickets in Ljubljana – the ticket window at Divača was closed when we got back to the station after the caves and I didn’t notice if it was open when we first arrived.
  • A train ticket for Ljubljana to Koper “via Divača” doesn’t seem to mean you can stop off at Divača and resume your journey later, you have to buy two separate tickets.
  • You don’t need to buy the bus ticket in advance.
  • The whole journey (2 trains and 1 bus) will cost you a bit less than €15 in total.

We looked at taking a bus direct from Divača to Piran, or taking a train back to Ljubljana then a direct bus to Piran, all to avoid the 2 hour wait at Divača station but the timing just didn’t work out. If you want to investigate it yourself or see if the timetables have changed here are the links you’ll need:

Slovenian train timetables
Free shuttle bus between Divača station and Škocjan Caves
Slovenian bus timetables

Luggage lockers

Once you arrive at Divača there’s just enough time to grab one of the only 3 luggage lockers on the station platform before you hop on the shuttle bus. (Only 2 of the lockers were functioning when we were there.) It costs €3 for the day but it only accepts €1 and €0.50 coins and there isn’t anywhere to get change. The lockers are not very tall but they are deep: we were able to fit 2 large travel packs and 2 normal backpacks inside without difficultly.

Lockers at Divača Station

If you can’t get one of the lockers at the station, lockers are available at Škocjan Caves – they’re not mentioned on their website but they confirmed it by email when I asked and I saw the lockers when we were there.

At the caves

When you get the info centre buy your tickets for the 11am tour (you’ll just miss the 10am). You might as well buy a 1 + 2 combined ticket because it’s only €5 more, you get to see more more cool sights, and you’ll need to kill the extra time anyway. (You can’t get to Piran any earlier than shown above!) To pass the time before your tour starts there’s a fantastic view of the collapsed doline a few minutes walk from the info centre (follow the signs).

The info centre has lots of tables and chairs, toilets, a cafe, a souvenir shop and free wifi. The food at the cafe is not cheap but it’s not overly expensive either. The food’s pretty good but the beer is very good. ;)

The canyon tour and additional walk afterwards are AMAZING… you can’t take any photos until the very end of the canyon tour (with or without flash) but here is a little teaser…

Exiting the underground canyon

I won’t say anything else, you have to experience it for yourself!

I love Croatia

So! Right now we’re in Trieste (a spot of Italy in between Slovenian stops) but the first stop on our 5 month journey from London back home to Melbourne was wonderful Croatia. With islands, national parks, excellent swimming, friendly people, cheap and tasty food and drink, Croatia has it all. We first visited and fell in love with the country on our big 2010 trip and wanted to return before leaving this part of the world, this time in summer so we could take advantage of swimming in the amazingly clear Adriatic Sea.

The first time we visited it was late autumn, which was not as conducive to swimming but the whole country is a lot quieter (and cooler, obviously – it gets very hot in summer) as well as cheaper and less touristy because it’s off peak. I think both are great times to go though – it depends on what you want out of your visit.

Places to go and things to see

  • Zagreb. The grand but unpretentious Austro-Hungarian capital is not as popular as Croatia’s coastal cities but if you have time it’s worth visiting for a day or two. Zagreb is home to all sorts of interesting and creative museums such as The Museum of Broken Relationships and the Typhlological MuseumPivnica Mali Medo is a fantastic place to eat cheap, hearty Croatian food and they sell their own brewed beer.
  • Plitvice Lakes National Park. You could visit Plitvice (pronnounced like plit-vih-se) in any season and it would be spectacular. 16 lakes feed sequentially into each other via a series of increasingly magnificent waterfalls, each lake a different shade of green or blue. It can be done as a stopover on the way from Zagreb to Zadar (or in the other direction), or you can spend a couple of nights in the area. If you do, it’s cheaper to stay in a guesthouse in Mukinje than one of the three hotels in Plitvice itself. Mukinje is in easy walking distance from Plitvice and the walk between the two through the forest is beautiful in itself.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

  • Zadar. Zadar boasts a beautiful old town right on the sea. There are lots of islands off the coast which you can visit by ferry – I particularly recommend Preko on the island of Uglijan (a 25 min journey, less than £4 return). You can see one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world from Zadar’s seaside promenade and if you walk all the way to the end you can listen to the soothing sounds of the Sea Organ and watch the Salute to the Sun do its thing after dark. I highly recommend staying at Kolega Guesthouse in Zadar!
  • Split. Quiet in autumn, Split gets pretty busy in summer. But it’s still lovely: the old town is housed within the walls of an ancient Roman palace! Split also has islands you can visit but they’re a bit further out (it takes 2 hours to reach the biggest one, Hvar) – we found it easier to go with a tour company that took us straight to some of the best spots.

Split's seaside promenade (Riva)

  • Trogir. Only about 40 minutes by local bus from Split and yet another beautiful seaside town. It’s historic center is contained within an island dwarfed by the next landmass out to sea. You can easily wander around in a day or you may like to base yourself here rather than in Split. (Both are roughly the same distance in opposite directions from Split’s airport.)
  • Dubrovnik. Ever popular, and for good reason. Its historic old town is surrounded by a fortified wall you can walk on top of and there are yet more islands you can visit off the coast. Look for the hole in the wall which leads down to a tiny bar called Buža clinging to the outside rock – drinks cost twice as much as anywhere else in town but the view, particularly at sunset, is worth it. You can see all the sights of Dubrovnik in two days – if you wanted to prolong a leisurely stay in Croatia you might be better off doing so in Zadar or Split which are cheaper for both accommodation and food. Two options that are great for cheap eats in Dubrovnik are Bosnian restaurant Taj Mahal and seafood restaurant Lokanda Peskarija.

Dubrovnik's old city

  • There’s also the peninsula of Istria which we’ve never had the pleasure of visiting but have only heard good things. Pula sounds nice and Hum is official the smallest town in the world!

[our many Croatia photos]

While you’re in the area

  • Kotor, Montenegro. If you’re near Dubrovnik and you have time it’s well worth popping next door into Montenegro to see Kotor. It’s 3 hours by road and a stunning trip – the bay of Kotor is not dissimilar to a Norwegian fjord. (Sit on the right hand side of the bus from Dubrovnik-Kotor and the left Kotor-Dubrovnik for the best view.) Kotor’s old town is tiny and very cute. While you’re there you can climb the old crumbling city wall all the way up the part of the mountain the city nestles against. There isn’t much choice in the way of  hostels in Kotor so we stayed at the simply named Montenegro Hostel which is right in the middle of the tiny old town. Their fantastic “Big Montenegro Tour” is a must – you get to see the highlights of the country in a single day! Including views such as this one:

The Bay of Kotor

  • Bosnia & Herzegovina. We had a very memorable time in Mostar and Sarajevo which I think was largely down to where we stayed: Majdas in Mostar and Residence Rooms in Sarajevo. Half the fun we had in Mostar was hanging out and meeting people at Majdas, and if you go it is COMPULSORY to do Bata’s world famous, life changing tour. Hinden Han is a great place to eat in Mostar and Buregdzinica Bosna in Sarajevo serves the best burek… in the world. :D

Swimming in a flooded lake on Bata's famous tour

A note on transport

If you hire a car you will of course have more freedom but not having done this myself I can’t comment on cost or what the roads are like, but note that most of these old towns are pedestrian only so parking may be an issue. As far as I’m concerned, bus travel is the way to go in the Balkans. It’s cheap (£10-12 for Split-Zadar and Zadar-Zagreb, for example), efficient and well air-conditioned (a godsend in summer). You’ll pay a nominal fee to stow luggage in the storage compartment underneath – it might vary per bus company but seems to be pretty consistent at 7kn (about 70p) per bag. There are some train links as well but I’ve only used these to get out of the region (eg from Zagreb to Budapest or Ljubljana). There’s no rail connection to Dubrovnik at all so you’ll have to drive or bus it in or out of there.