Post written by Laura
Date of travel: July 2008
Delving back into the past again and this time I’m reflecting on travelling with teenagers. On a mission to inject some fun, culture and excitement into their lives, this was the first time I took my son James (then age 15) and daughter Zoe (then age 13) on a mini backpacking adventure. We travelled by train and bus through 4 European countries and 6 cities in 10 days.
Route: Graz (Austria) – Maribor (Slovenia) – Zagreb (Croatia) – Opatija (Croatia) – Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Venice (Italy)
Day 1 Graz
Journey from Stansted, England to Graz, Austria
Eager to give James and Zoe the full backpacking experience we had minimised our luggage and armed with one wheely holdall between us and a small backpack each headed off in the car to Stansted airport.
After a short flight we arrived in Graz, a town in the south of Austria to a sunny 27 degrees and took a taxi for the short distance to the hostel. The hostel was fairly large, basic and purpose built so “functional, if not decorative” although it did have an en-suite shower room, TV and plenty of storage (not that we needed it!)
Keen to explore, we left our bags in the room and headed towards the bus stop where we got a bus to the old town area of Graz. As it was so warm, the first thing we did was to find an open air cafe and have a drink and snack.
I hadn’t done any prior research on Graz however it is a small and walkable city with narrow baroque streets and pretty squares. The colourful buildings were traditionally Austrian with wooden features and flowers on the window ledges. We came to the Hauptplatz, the medieval old town square which is lined with buildings such as the Rathaus (Town Hall) with its ornate statues.
After a short time, we arrived at the foot of the Schlossberg, a steep hill under the clock tower. You can take the funicular but we walked through a cave to get to the modern lift at the end which took us to the top of the hill to the clock tower. You can of course walk up the hill!
From the clock tower we could see panoramic views right across the whole of Graz and beyond to the green mountains in the distance. The 13th century mediaeval clock tower has confusing hands with the long hand pointing to the hour and the short hand pointing to the minutes!
We walked around at the top where there were several bars and cafes. We found one modern and contemporary bar overlooking the valley where we had another drink.
Above is the Kunsthaus, a shimmering blue contemporary building with an art centre inside.
We made our way back to the lift and once we had descended we walked across the short distance to the river. We crossed the river to the opera house and then back again into the old town.
By now it was 6 pm and the temperature was perfect! It was warm and mild and ideal for strolling around. There was an easy, relaxed atmosphere was we wandered through the little squares where people sat outside having drinks and dinner.
We made our way through the streets and found another lovely square where we sat outside for dinner, each of us having a traditional Austrian meal (mine was a delicious potato strudel). Following the meal, we treated ourselves to ice cream from one of the many ice cream parlours before getting a taxi back to the hostel. Good timing as shortly afterwards there was a thunderstorm!
Day 2 Maribor
A Slovenian city set amidst hills and wine regions!
I misread the time on my phone, got up and had a shower an hour earlier than I had planned meaning I was ready by 7:00 am! The hostel breakfast was quite good with the usual cereals, bread, cheese, ham and sausages. The orange tasted like watered down squash and the milk tasted a bit off, but it was OK.
We checked out of the hostel and walked outside into the hot sun heading towards the bus stop. Fortunately the bus arrived at the stop at the same time as we did, and we drove a few minutes to the main bus and train station. The station was large and modern with several cafes, a McDonalds and some shops. We purchased our train tickets to Maribor and stocked up with some water and supplies for the journey.
We had to wait for half an hour or so for the train and we left Graz at 10:36. The train was fairly empty and it was a very comfortable journey with spacious wide seats and lots of room. We arrived in Maribor at 11:39.
We took a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Tabor, checked in and went to our room. The room was excellent, clean and modern and smelled of Scandinavian pine when we opened the door.
We went down to the reception and had a chat with the receptionist about what we could see and do in Maribor. We walked outside the hotel and took a bus to go and visit the mountains. We were dropped off at the foot of the gondola ride where we purchased tickets which also included lunch at the mountain top restaurant (as recommended by the hotel receptionist).
The gondola ride took about 10 – 15 minutes to get to the top of the mountain where we could see right across the valley with Maribor in the middle and more mountains in the distance. It was a reasonably clear day although hazy in the distance.
We had a drink at the hotel on the top of the mountain, sitting in the sun, with the intention of exploring for a bit. However, we started to feel a bit hungry so we decided to have our inclusive lunch then. We found another table with an umbrella as it was very hot sitting up there.
The lunch was excellent. It was a traditional hearty Slovenian meal with soup for starters with very fresh crusty bread, followed by a tasty side salad, then pasta with a tomato based sauce with peppers and beef. It was very good but there was lots of it! It was very pleasant sitting there with a glass of red wine too. We sat feeling full and stuffed, when the waiter suddenly turned up with a delicious dessert of warm apple strudel each.
After lunch we had a short walk around the top of the mountain and saw a small village before taking the gondola back down again.
We got the number 6 bus which took us right to the old town of Maribor. We had a look around the small square, then headed towards the river. We walked onto the bridge then along the river bank for a while until we found a bar where we sat and had a drink for an hour or so.
By now it was 6 pm. After such a big lunch none of us were hungry so we decided to walk to Euro Park, a large modern shopping centre. The shopping centre was clean, bright and airy and full of modern shops. We had a look round for a while, then found a Mexican bar an ideal spot for a drink and some quesadillas for a snack!
We left the shopping centre at around 8.15 pm, walked back to the old town and got a taxi back to the hotel. We had a drink and some peanuts in the bar, while we discussed the plans for the following day.
Day 3 Zagreb
Summer in the city…
We had showers, got ready and had breakfast in the hotel. The breakfast was excellent, similar to yesterday but with fresh milk and ‘proper’ orange juice. There was also slightly more choice with yogurts, cake and bacon also available.
The receptionist ordered us a taxi, and we checked out and left at 9 am. We got to the station and found the platform for our train to Zagreb.
The train arrived a few minutes early and was fairly empty. We had a ‘Harry Potter style’ compartment to ourselves and relaxed on the journey. The scenary was very green passing lovely little villages and mountains and rivers.
We stopped at the border town of Dobova where passport control officers got on the train and checked our passports. A short time later, they came round and stamped our passports. More officers came round after that and stamped them again!
We arrived in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, to hot and sunny 30 degree temperatures. We immediately changed the small sum of £20 into Croatian currency and took a taxi the short distance to the Henrik apartments. We found a sign for Henrik café where we were to check in. Unfortunately we had to pay upfront in cash and not by card as anticipated.
Off to another cashpoint and back to the cafe where we still had to wait for a while. There seemed to be some confusion and eventually I was able to get across that we were waiting for the keys to our room which we assumed to be above or adjacent to the cafe.
To our surprise and with no explanation we were shown to a large car and having put our luggage in the boot, we driven a few blocks away. Hoping we were not being kidnapped, we were a little apprehensive during this short journey and even more so when the car stopped in the middle of a deserted and run-down group of grey concrete 1930’s buildings, similar to those I had seen in East Berlin on a previous trip. We tentatively got out of the car wondering what we were getting into.
The driver lead us to the base of one of the grey buildings, opened the front door, then led us to the door of the apartment which was surprisingly very pleasant if a bit quirky! Like a little psychedelic oasis there were 2 bedrooms and a bathroom and all were decorated in bright and cheerful colours and a great deal of effort had obviously gone into making the apartment look nice and feel homely. Today this would most likely be a typical AirBnB (which started in the UK in 2009; Chris and I had our first AirBnB experience in January 2016 in Hawaii!)
The man gave us the keys and shortly left. We left our luggage in the apartment and went off to explore Zagreb. We walked in the heat towards the city centre. After about 20 minutes, we came to the main tourist centre of Zagreb and soon found an open air café where we enjoyed ice-cream. At the end of the street was a large modern hotel, so we went into the reception and asked for a map to get our bearings and find out what to see in Zagreb.
We walked towards the cathedral, first coming to a large square. It had a tourist train, so we paid a small amount of money and had a 15 minute ride around the centre of Zagreb hoping to get a good feel for the city. However it only really showed us the shops and one or two historical buildings.
From the happy tourist train, we walked to the cathedral which, disappointingly was half covered in scaffolding. We went inside and took a few pictures. We then wandered round the streets and came to a funicular railway. Next to the funicular was a small wine shop with some seats outside. We had a look in the shop which only sold Croatian wines. The shop keeper recommended a Croatian Chardonney… sold!
We sat outside and I was served the Chardonney (and James and Zoe had a soft drink each), with the cheese, olives and some bread. It was all local produce, even the olives were from Dalmatia. It was all very good, particularly the wine!
We decided to go up the funicular next and after a bit of faffing around with the money, we eventually went up there. There were some great views across the city. We were not particularly high up, but could see over the roof tops to the outskirts of Zagreb and the hills beyond.
We came across the famous coloured roof of St Mark’s church which is one of the oldest monuments in Zagreb but was also half covered in scaffolding.
We walked down some narrow streets and found the famous Stone Gates which was originally built between 1242 and 1266.
Above is a statue of St George slaying the (slightly odd looking) dragon which is located close to the Stone Gate.
We wandered back to the large square, then back near to where we had started with the ice-creams and settled in the open air Bulldog Bar for some more refreshments. This was next to a travel agent, so I asked them to show us on the map where the bus station is so we could make plans for getting there to continue our onward journey the following day.
By now it was about 6.30 pm and we were starting to get hungry. We thought we would walk back in the direction of the apartments and find a restaurant on the way. Unfortunately we walked all the way back and hadn’t found anything! We made a quick decision to get a tram back to the city centre and walked round to the front of the apartments and got the number 2 tram.
We got off at the train station and walked through the park area back to the large square. As we were looking for somewhere, a friendly local asked if he could help and suggested a restaurant opposite the cathedral. It was excellent! We sat outside in the warm evening and were given some cottage cheese with herbs and some fresh crusty bread. James and Zoe had spaghetti bolognaise and I had Croatian veal stew with mashed potatoes and a glass of Croatian wine. We all enjoyed our huge meals which were good value with a total bill of less than £25.
We took a taxi back to the apartment but needed some snacks and water. Fortunately there was a tiny open shop opposite, although the door was locked and we realised we had to communicate with the shop lady through an open window. It was hilarious trying to explain what we wanted as she couldn’t understand English and we couldn’t speak Croatian, so we had to point! She was laughing and we were all laughing! Eventually we came away with our supplies, including some Jaffa cakes for breakfast!
Day 4 Opatija
One of the key selling points of the trip was the promise of a couple of days at the seaside!
I woke up first at about 7 am. There wasn’t a big rush to get ready as we had to get a bus at 11:30, so James and Zoe had a lie in this morning. Surprisingly, the shower in this quirky apartment was excellent! As an apartment there was no breakfast so we ate the Jaffa cakes, locked up the apartment, dropped the keys in the post box, then walked round to the front where we got tram number 2 again.
This tram went directly to the bus station without us having to change. The bus station was large with several ticket booths. After being directed from one to another, fortunately we managed to collect the correct tickets that I had pre-booked on a somewhat ropey website. As we had over an hour before the bus left, we had a warm cheese and ham roll each.
We boarded the bus for Opatija which departed Zagreb at 11:30 being due to arrive at 14:50. Although most of the journey was by motorway we noticed the green scenery flashing past although it wasn’t as mountainous as the day before. We stopped along the way for about 15 minutes where we brought an ice-cream each and continued our journey.
We stopped in Riejka and dropped some people off, finally ending up in Opatija on time. We were deposited in the town centre and walked a short distance to our hotel which was easy to find. We checked in with the grumpy man at reception and found our rooms just along the corridor. We had two very large and bright airy rooms with an interconnecting door. We had a colour TV in each, two bathrooms and a huge amount of space making one very large suite! The rooms were next to a small marina and we could see the Adriatic and watch the boats sailing past was was really pleasant.
After settling in we left our stuff in the rooms and set off to explore Opatija! It was very much seaside town, which almost felt British, almost like Torquay or somewhere! It was full of bars, cafes and seaside shops. We walked around and looked in a couple of shops. At around 5 pm we were a bit hungry so we found a seafront café and had a pizza each. We then continued to wander along, taking photos and ending up at an outside bar.
By around 7.15 pm we were all feeling tired, so we walked back to the hotel. We chilled out in the room for an hour then went downstairs and had a drink in the bar, sitting on the terrace overlooking the sea.
Day 6 Opatija
And the boat trip!
I woke up just before 7 am to the sun streaming through the thin curtains. As we were staying in Opatija for 2 nights I took this opportunity of using the bathroom sink to do a small amount of washing by hand, to ensure we had enough clean clothes for the rest of the trip.
After all the rushing about each morning getting breakfast and catching trains and the bus, we had a relaxing morning. We had breakfast in the hotel, which was pretty basic although had no fruit or cakes or pancakes.
At around 11 am we left the hotel and walked out into the heat and along towards the centre of Opatija where we booked up for a glass bottomed boat trip for the afternoon.
At 2 pm the boat left Opatija and sailed close to the shore through incredibly clear dark blue sea. After a short while however the sky began to get darker and we were informed by the captain that we wouldn’t go as far as the planned destination due to the weather conditions so the boat burned around and we stopped at a different town.
By now we could see thunder and lightening in the hills and as the boat moored in the small coastal town it started to rain heavily. We didn’t actually see any of the town as we spent the hour sheltering in a restaurant!
Thankfully the rain stopped as we got back on the boat and as we sailed back along the Opatija Riviera it stopped a few times so we could see fish in the glass bottom of the boat. We arrived back to Opatija at 5 pm
Later in the evening we walked along the sea front to the other end of Opatija in search of food. We found a small off-the-beaten-track Croatian restaurant where I had ‘Croatian style turkey’. This was turkey cooked in a gratin with bacon on the top, sliced potatoes around and done in a sauce with lots of melted cheese on the top (and in the days before I became a vegetarian/vegan). This was washed down with more of the delicious Croatian local wine, something I enjoyed on later visits to Croatia, with wine tasting in Dubrovnik in 2010 and to accompany every evening meal in Markaska in 2018.
We walked back to the hotel at around 9 pm, through the bustling streets of street vendors and entertainers.
Day 7 Ljubljana
Capital city number 2!
We enjoyed another lie in this morning, had breakfast and checked out of the hotel at 11 am. We took a taxi to Opatija train station and were surprised to arrive at such a deserted and very old fashioned place! It was like being transported back by 50 years as we had to knock on a small wooden framed window to buy the tickets.
The tickets were the small ancient paper type and we had to pay by cash. Thankfully I had just enough for the tickets which were the equivalent of about £8 each for the two hour journey to Ljubljana.
There were no signs of any trains and without any notice boards we had no idea when to expect it. It was very hot as we hung around waiting although there was a small cafe next to the station where we could get a drink.
Eventually the train arrived at 13:08 and with no platform we had to climb up from the track to embark on the train. No seats were available so we had to sit in the corridor. Despite the heat and the seating the journey wasn’t too bad. We had on-board customs checks and more stamps in our passports.
After the two hours we arrived in Ljubljana and got a taxi to the hostel.
The hostel was only 5 minutes by taxi and with its bright colours the Hostel Celica stood out in the desolated, rough looking area where most of the buildings were covered in graffiti. The Hostel Celica was in fact a former prison and the rooms and dormitories had been designed by local and international artists.
Our tiny room was at the top of the former prison in part of a loft conversion. We left our stuff in there and walked towards the centre of Ljubljana, stopping at a cash point on the way.
Fortunately it didn’t take long to get to the River Ljubljanica that flows through the centre of the city and from there we soon found the 3 bridges (Triple Bridge) which connect the new city and and the mediaeval old town.
It was wonderful to wander around Ljubljana on foot which is a truly picturesque place, like a fairytale! We stopped in restaurant near to the river for a snack and sat people watching before continuing our explorations.
By now it was gone 6 pm, but we decided to walk up the hill to the castle which thankfully was still open. We climbed to the top and saw panoramic views of the whole of the city and the mountains beyond.
We came down from the castle in the funicular and had a drink in a Mexican restaurant before making our way back to the hostel
We crossed over the Dragon Bridge, the dragon being a symbol of Ljubljana. According to legend, Jason (and the Argonauts) killed a dragon and became the founder of the city.
We arrived back at the hostel although none of us slept very well as with no air conditioning in such a tiny space in the attic it was extremely hot in the room!
Day 8 Ljubljana
We had a tasty breakfast of cereals, bread, ham, cheese and jam while sitting outside the hostel. We decided to hire bikes from the hostel for a couple of hours this morning which was very reasonable only costing 1 euro each for 2 hours of hire.
The bikes were all the same and were fairly new. From the hostel we made our way towards the centre. Fortunately the centre is not too busy and as it was a Sunday, the roads were very quiet. We cycled through the centre and towards the park. There were cycle paths along the main roads and an underpass under the main road and rail lines.
We cycled through the park for a while before coming to a house where we stopped for a drink before cycling back to the hostel.
We then walked back the to centre and walked round for a bit. We found a chocolate shop and had 2 luxury chocolates each at about a quarter of the usual price we pay when we go to Harrods! (I mean, on the odd occasion we’ve visited Harrods… this implies we are regular Harrods shoppers which isn’t quite the case…)
We then had an ice-cream and walked to the Mexican place where we had a drink last night and booked a table, then went back to the hostel. We hung around in the hostel for a couple of hours. James and Zoe went on the internet while I read a book.
We left the hostel at 5.30 pm and walked to the Mexican restaurant where we all had tortillas and 3 side dishes each, so we all had a huge plateful of excellent food. After the meal we headed back to the hostel as we had an early train booked for the following morning. However, it was very hot and difficult to get to sleep again.
Day 9 Venice
Off to the City of Canals
I woke up at 5.45 am which was15 minutes before the alarm went off. We all got ready and packed up our stuff. We had to take our bedsheets back to the reception area and then we checked out of the hostel. The train station was only a 5 minute walk away, so with our luggage we walked to the station to get our train to Villach in Austria.
The train journey to Villach took a couple of hours. I had to previously reserve the seats which was fortunate as it meant we didn’t have to stand up again or sit in the dusty corridor this time. We had a compartment within a carriage but had to share it with an old man. I’m not sure which nationality he was but he didn’t seem to understand English. The journey passed quickly and we got to Villach on time for our connection to Venice.
We had to wait for half an hour alongside many other backpackers. Again, it had been compulsory to reserve seats on the train to Venice which was just as well as the train was full. We found our seats and made ourselves comfortable for the 3 hour journey to Venice.
We passed through some spectacular mountain scenery as we crossed from Austria to Italy. I didnt bother to take any photos as you always end up with a blurred tree or telegraph pole in the way! We also went through tunnels, one in particular that seemed several miles long!
The train journey went quickly and we soon arrived in Venice. This was my second visit to the city, the first being in January 2004 where I had not been prepared for freezing temperatures and fog! By contrast today it was 33 degrees with Venice being the hottest place of the trip. We had each taken a jacket with us should the evenings be chilly but hadn’t worn them at all.
We disembarked off at Mestre, near to the location of our hotel and took a taxi to the hotel Delfino, which was about 5 minutes away. We checked in and went to our room which in my view was the best hotel of the trip. We had a large suite consisting of two bedrooms and a bathroom. The room had air conditioning, which was a luxury after the previous two nights in the hostel. It also had two flat screen TV’s and an electronic safe.
We walked to the bus stop across the road from the hotel, but as we were hungry we decided to have a snack in the café across the road. We all had a cheese toastie and I also had a glass of Chianti which was great as it was cheaper than a soft drink at only 1.20 euros for a glass! There was a bank just round the corner too, so we got some money out before getting the bus to Venice. It felt exciting as we drove for 10 minutes along the causeway into Venezia, the island of Venice. From the bus stop we walked through the streets of Venice heading towards St Marks Square.
There was a big contrast between the main tourist areas which were packed with tourists and the backstreet areas which were quiet and peaceful. It was like trying to find our way through a maze as we made our way through. We got to the Rialto bridge which was bustling with people.
Having crossed the Rialto Bridge we soon arrived at the Piazza San Marco (St Marks Square in English) which was packed with people too. There was a huge queue for St Marks Basilica but fortunately the queue for the tower was very small and as we climbed we had fantastic views over Venice from the top of the tower.
Masks are part of a tradition of Venice believed to have started in the 13th century and sold by many of the shops.
Sightseeing in 33 degrees is thirsty work so having just left St Marks Square nearby in the posh designer area we stopped at a bar at the waterfront. Having checked the drinks menu and discovering soft drinks were 14 euros (then about £11) each we we settled for bottles of water from a nearby stall and sat on a bench drinking them!
We walked to the vaporetto (water bus) but by now it was about 6 pm and very busy, so we decided to leave it for an hour or so. We found a restaurant a couple of streets back and sat in the open air having a snack and a drink. The idea was to have a snack/starter and a drink in there, then a meal later. We ordered a bowl of fries, some olives and some bread and Chardonney. What a rip off! The olives alone cost £5!
From the restaurant, we walked to a vaporetto and brought tickets. The water bus journey went across to Marguarite island, and stopped at several other places before getting to Piazza Roma and the start of the Grand Canal. We travelled the length of the Grand canal, under the Rialto Bridge and back to Marco place where we started. We decided to stay on the boat thinking it would take us back to the bus station, but instead it went to the Lido and we all had to get off the boat. As we were now on the Lido, we decided to walk along the bars and cafes and have a drink. By now it was getting dark and the sun had just set over Venice.
We just had one drink each, then got a water bus back to the bus station, got bus number 4 again and got back to our hotel at about 11.30 pm.
Day 10 Venice
In search of the Lido beach!
As the last day of our trip we planned a more leisurely day for today. After filling up with an excellent breakfast we left the hotel and decided to go back to the Lido in search of the beach. We got the bus into Venice and brought a 12 hour pass for a cost of 14 euros each so we could use the buses and water buses throughout the day.
We got the water bus and went along the Grand canal again and to the Lido. We got on a bus on the Lido and got off the other side of the island at the beach. The sea was a long way off and it was very hot. We found a bench and had a snack with the intention of walking to the sea and having a drink in a bar. We didn’t get far before being told that we were in a private beach area.
We begrudgingly left the private beach and set off in search of a public beach. Alas after trudging quite a distance in the heat, we didn’t find one as they were all private. We gave up eventually as we were all hot and getting fed up. We got another bus back to the water bus station area, found a café and had an ice-cream each. We walked along the town for a bit, got a drink and decided to give up on the Lido and the chance to get onto a beach and took a water bus back into Venice.
Rather than continuing on the vaporetto boat all the way back to the Piazza Roma to the main bus station, we disembarked a few stops early and decided to walk through the streets. As we walked through what felt like a maze we tried to keep to the shade and once we were almost there, we stopped at a peaceful canal side café where we had a bite to eat and a couple of drinks each. I was astounded at the bill, which came to just 30 euros! Just to demonstrate time and again that going slightly off the beaten track pays off and you are also more likely to get an authentic local and less touristy experience!
Understandably as Venice is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, it was not going to be cheap. However, I think I got through the best part of £200 in less than two days, not including the hotel bill, which is excessive, considering we didn’t exactly go over the top with our spending.
Day 11 home
Sad to be going home…
As always, I didn’t want to be going home again and wished we could continue our journey and travel on to a new place.
We checked out of the hotel at 10:30 and took the bus to Treviso. The journey took about 45 minutes as the bus stopped many times. The plan was to have a quick look around Treviso before heading to the airport as but as we were hot and carrying our luggage instead from the bus station we got a taxi the rest of the way to the airport.
During the flight back the pilot announced that the temperature in London was 24 degrees, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be going back there. I wanted to go on to somewhere else! So I spent the rest of the journey planning more trips!
This was a fantastic trip and it has been wonderful to look back and remember such happy times spent with my children. While difficult to have such adventures abroad at the moment I would urge any families (and indeed anyone) to do whatever they can to make life exciting and make memories to be treasured for years to come.