10 Best things to do in Split, Croatia

“You’re going on holiday?” asked one of my friends, slightly incredulously. “Your entire life is a holiday”.

She had a point. The last year has been something of a wonderfully, long vacation. But we were travelling (aka throwing ourselves up mountains and taking cold showers at high altitude), then teaching English, setting up a business and finally, taking North American students on tours of Europe.

So to reward ourselves we decided it was time for a holiday. And so off we set with a Kindle full of books and a bag full of swimwear; vowing to do little but eat, sleep and sunbathe. We were on our jollies!

Our first stop was Split (before heading to the islands) and we instantly fell in love. With flights costing from £100 return, I thought it would be rude not to try and convince you to get involved with this gorgeous port city. So, once you’ve booked your flights, here’s my top 10 things to do in Split to get you started:

1) Gorge yourself on seafood. I’ll be honest, we found Croatian cuisine to be a mixed bag. Sometimes glorious, sometimes a tad bland – think, gnocchi with watery meat juices. However, the seafood on offer in Split and the nearby islands is absolutely wonderful. Many restaurants will offer a seafood platter for two and we ended up having some of the best fish of our lives at Konoba Marjan (Senjska 1, Split). For about £30 we were served sea bass, sea bream, squid, tuna steak, hake and large prawns served with marinaded roasted vegetables and homemade crusty bread. The white fish was superbly tender and melted in our mouth, while the tuna was perfectly seared and meaty. The waiter recommended the Bibich Riserva 5, a Croatian white wine that I was initially a little sceptic of as it blends five grapes – but it worked very well with the dish.

2) Find some locals singing under the naturally acoustic arches of the town. We were fortunate in that there was a big festival approaching in Split – whether that was why we chanced upon the teenage singers I don’t know – but it was quite a remarkable experience. Surrounded by Ozujsko beer bottles they were singing some traditional songs under some arches within the palace walls – and their voices carried powerfully – warbling and reverberating across the square.

3) Find a bargain lunch. I first visited Croatia 10 years ago and upon returning this time I was staggered by how much more expensive everything is. It’s hard to find a meal for less that about £7 these days (and that’s before you add the booze). But we found some great bargains. Firstly, head to one of the Billa supermarkets and buy the crustiest bread, local cheese, hams, salad and cold beers and enjoy an impromptu picnic on the waterfront. The ham here is like Iberico ham – delicious – and this is a much cheaper option than most restaurants. However, we also found a fabulous little restaurant near the waterfront called Dujkin Dvor on Obala A. Trumbica (also known as Pasta2Go), that had a really wonderful range of affordable dishes. We opted for the meatballs of the day (huge homemade meat balls in a delicious sauce and creamy mash) which cost just £4 and a lovely Mexican tuna salad that cost £2.70. Bargain! And tasty.

4) Take a Walking Tour. We had been in Split for a couple of days before we took the One Penny Walking Tour – and wow, I felt like I had been walking around with my eyes closed for two days! The tour costs 1 Euro per person and we were given a wonderful guide who expertly walked us around the Diocletian’s Palace for 90 minutes. The old town is set within the palace walls, which dates from 305BC and our lovely guide took us right back hundreds of years ago as she showed us where the ‘vomiting’ rooms would have been so that people could gorge themselves on 21-course meals without having to skip any courses. Man, I was born in the wrong century.

Split... where the pavements are made from foot-polished limestone

Split… where the pavements are made from foot-polished limestone

5) Get amongst the Croatian Wine. Croatia has a wine history that dates back to the Ancient Greek settlers and most of it is made on the islands off Split. We quickly deduced that only philistines would dare neglect wine on a trip like this. Our first supermarket bottle left us somewhat disappointed but then we decided to sign up to a walking tour (see point four) that finished with some wine tasting. Perfect. We ended up at the Diocletian’s Palace Hostel and Wine House, which did not disappoint. Set in one of the narrow cobbled alleyways of the old town, surrounded by stone buildings the atmospheric wine bar has cute wooden tables and makes for a pretty picture-perfect wine tasting setting. We liked the Cesarica white wine (made on Havr island) so much that we ordered a bottle of it (for about £12) alongside a platter of ham and cheese. We also heard great things about the Art of Wine, a shop which does tastings and trips out to the nearby wineries but with three taster glasses of wine and a nibble platter starting at 35 Euros a head we thought it was a little steep. The Diocletian’s Palace Hostel and Wine House is located at Ulica Julija Nepota 4.

6) If all the wine, cheese and fish consumption gets too much head to one of the fabulous galleries in town. We visited the Mestrovic Gallery, which was fabulous. Home to a huge selection of sculptures by Ivan Mestrovic (who is the artist behind the large-wizard like statue by the golden gates of the palace – which incidentally has a golden toe. The gallery is set in the most beautiful house overlooking the sea and nearby islands. He built the house himself as a home, gallery space and workshop before fleeing the country due to his anti-communism tendencies. The view and the building itself is just as impressive as the sculptures. We had a marvellous hour or so here.

The fabulous work of Ivan M

The fabulous work of Ivan Mestrovic

7) Stay in a funky apartment with a balcony overlooking the old town. We have used the apartment rental website of Airbnb throughout our trip in Croatia and have not been disappointed. We have not spent more than £17 – 30 on accommodation per night and have had lovely little apartments with balconies and light, airy rooms. We loved this little place in Split.

A small but perfectly formed balcony on our apartment on Split

A small but perfectly formed balcony on our apartment on Split

8) Climb up the steps of Marjan (west of the town) to be rewarded with the most fabulous views of the Split. And if you’re parched, fret not, there’s a bar at the top. Even better, hire a bike and cycle the peninsular around this area. It is gorgeous. We cycled up to a different viewpoint, enjoyed a fish soup near a gorgeous, rocky cove and just took in the gorgeous forested landscape around us. Bliss. There are a few places in Split hiring bikes, we hired ours from a place near the port – they tend to cost around 2 Euros per hour and we were impressed by the quality of the mountain bikes.

Matty working up a sweat...

Matty working up a sweat…

9) Visit the nearby islands. You cannot come this far and miss them. Vis, Hvar and Brac are the islands off Split, which are anything from an hour to 2.5 hours away by catamaran. We visited Hvar, which has the most beautiful town and apparently a happening night life in the peak season (be sure to have sundowners at the Hula Hula Beach Club on the ocean) and Brac which has the beautiful Zlatni Rat Beach near Bol.

The lovely island of Hvar

The lovely island of Hvar

Zlatni Rat beach near Bol, Brac

Zlatni Rat beach near Bol, Brac

10) Last but not least, pack your running kit. Early morning runs around a town as beautiful as Split is every runner’s dream. I can’t think of a nicer way to see the town.

The Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam

If there’s one thing that budget travelling teaches you about it’s sharing. Not that I’ve never had to share before, I grew up with my brother and while I was not that fussed about playing with many of his toys, everything else was shared. Our parents’ attention, the one family television, even our bedroom was shared for a little while.

But then you get a bit older, have your own place and get used to things just being yours. Until you go travelling at the ripe old age of 29 that is and suddenly you find yourself queuing for the bathroom again, having quick showers so the queue doesn’t build up too much, sharing your bedroom with 12 other people – and even sharing your train seat (that cost good money) with a couple of others that would otherwise be standing. And you just sort of learn how to share all over again.

And I thought I was doing pretty well. Until I got to Hanoi, Vietnam that is.

Welcome to the world where entire families share a motorbike and will squeeze all five of them onto the back of it. I kid you not. In fact yesterday, I saw a guy riding a bike with his dog sitting quite happily on the seat behind him (I mean, seriously which British dog would do that and not try to jump off on some sort of terrified suicide mission?) He stopped, two others got on and the dog just sort of shuffled up between them. Even the dogs know how to share here.

But the really remarkable thing is how people live. The Old Quarter in Hanoi is the beating heart of the city. Consisting of hundreds of buildings crammed in next to each other, it is an intoxicating blend of architecture, with French influences, Vietnamese influences and just plain desperation all piled on top of each other.

Hanoi Old Quarter

With height restrictions in place by the Government, Hanoians have taken to throwing tin extensions onto the front of their homes that jut out in the air in a precarious manner, while also lowering ceilings to create more levels inside the buildings.

“It is a mixed mess,” our tour guide An told us smiling. “Not a miss-match, a mixed mess.”

And she’s not wrong. Dozens of huge thick black wires hangs haphazardly across the streets, entwined.

Electricity wires Hanoi

“They tried to put all the wires underground a couple of years ago,” she explained. “They did two streets and then gave up. It’s just too big a job.”

“Sometimes if your lights go out, they are fixed but then your internet goes out,” said An, looking up to huge mass of black wires above us.

Electricity wires in Hanoi

But somehow the higgledy-piggledy mess of wiring and housing is sort of what gives the Old Quarter its heart beat. And it is a city that beats loudly. The noise in Hanoi is overwhelming.

The first noise is the motorbike. With a population of more than six million, it is said there are about four million motorbikes in the city. And it is overwhelming. The revving of the engines and the honking of the horns feels like an angry orchestra that is playing its crescendo over and over again. Crossing roads is not for the faint-hearted.

Motorbikes in hanoi

But underneath that noise, if you can find it, there is so much else. There is a lot of singing. If you listen carefully you will hear the women who carry fruits and sugary snacks in the baskets they carry over their shoulders on long poles, softly singing about their goods.

Hanoi woman

Hanoi basket woman

Hanoi woman carrying baskets

But listen even more carefully and you will hear the sound of dozens of birds singing. Hanoians love their birds and almost every stall has a handful of budgerigars in cages around them, chirping and twittering their way through the day.

Budgerigars in Hanoi

Budgies in Hanoi

Hanoi budgies

And then there are the sounds of the tradesmen as they go about their work on the pavements – the banging of tin and copper, the sanding and chopping bamboo or the sound of children running aroud with their new “clackers” on toy street.

Because the streets in Hanoi don’t sell everything. No, no, the Old Quarter is just like a massive market and while one street will be “shoe street”, another is for underwear, toys, copper or decorations – there is even one for cellotape where shop after shop has hundreds of rolls stacked up on top of each other.

The pavements are not for walking. They are for working. Hundreds of women will be selling their wares, sitting on tiny plastic stools for hours upon hours outside alleyways. But it’s what’s behind those alleyways that explains the real secret of Hanoi.

Hanoi grocers fruit seller

For each alleyway is the gateway to one of the towering buildings that make up the Old Quarter. Each alleyway leads to a house that may hold on average seven or eight families. Each family has a room of their own where they will sleep in a fittingly higgledy-piggledy manner, but they will share everything else. The kitchen, the bathroom (yes that’s right, one bathroom for seven families), the washing area, everything is shared.

The communal kitchen in one of Hanoi's Old Quarter homes

Often it is the ground floor of this building, that will be open-air to allow natural light into it, that will hold the communal facilities with doors and stairs leading into the homes of the families.

I looked at the communal sink of the house that An had led us down and saw about 20 tooth brushes lined up next to it. And suddenly I realised I’ve never really had to share anything.

As we walked out of the alleyway we glanced at the lady selling deep fried tofu and rice noodles.

“If you come back at lunch-time you will find a different woman selling pho, or at dinner-time you will find another woman selling seafood,” An explained.

“That’s the prime business spot for the families of this house so they have to share it,” she added.

Of course they do. Because really, there is nothing that is not shared here. And as I watched the vendor chat to everybody around her and calling out at children that ran in and out of the alleyway I was reminded by just how much more you get when you share with others. And I vowed to get a little bit better at it.

Travel Tips

I got under the skin of the Old Quarter by taking a walking tour with a company called Hidden Hanoi. Lasting about two hours and costing $25, it was worth every penny. We explored alleyways that I would never have dared explore alone, tasted delicious coffee in hidden coffee shops and were taken into people’s homes in the Old Quarter. It finished with a 20 minute cyclo tour of the city – the perfect way to see it all without being distracted by whizzing motorbikes!

Led by the wonderful An (pictured below), I can’t recommend it enough. Their email address is: hiddenhanoi@gmail.com

Our tour guide Anh

World in Pictures: Almaty, Kazakhstan

We visited Almaty, Kazakhstan for three reasons:

1) So that The Mongoose could do his finest Borat impressions and cry: “It’s nice, I like,” at all key attractions.
2) So that I could cry: “Oh Matty, in Almaty!”
3) For a slice of ‘normality’ (aka European shops, cafes and restaurants).

And we were not disappointed. From the moment we crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan The Mongoose was living the Borat dream, I was crying: “Take Matty to Almaty,” at random taxi drivers, and Matty, meanwhile, demanded that we went straight to the pub to make it all a bit more bearable.

What we were not expecting however, and what our guide book completely failed to warn us of, was the hideous Soviet monstrosities at every corner. After spending more than three months travelling the ‘stans of the former USSR, I have to say that I think Almaty may have just come out with the rawest deal.

It is a sprawl of concrete tower blocks, low-rise linear patterned buildings and ugly mistakes. In saying that, many of them spill out onto the pavements as restaurants and bars offering the finest cuisine and nightlife we’ve seen since Budapest. It was both ugly and beautiful – and very expensive.

So without further ado, here’s a sample of the city’s architecture.













But if Soviet architecture is not your thing, here’s a few snaps of the boys to, ahem, inspire you.





What do you think of Soviet architecture? Love it or loathe it?

Travel Tips

Where to stay in Almaty?

We stayed at the brand new Almaty Backpackers, which was wonderfully clean with great facilities -it had a nice spacious kitchen for guests to use, and good sized dorms with en suite bathrooms (with great showers).

On the other hand we got a knock on the door from the manager at 11pm on the second night asking for money and telling us to go to the cashpoint as we didn’t have any on us! I’ll put this down to not yet having a payment system (either asking for money beforehand or at the end of the stay) and hopefully not something that will continue.

Rooms cost 13 Euro per night per person. The address is: 46A Markova Street.

How to get about in Almaty?
Taxis are extraordinarily expensive for Central Asia – expect to pay 1,000 Tenge for an inner city journey. Your best bet is to wave down random cars (expect to pay 500) or use the city’s good bus network.

Visiting Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: Pack sunglasses and a sense of humour

Walking around the capital of Turkmenistan, I was reminded of those ‘If I was president I would…’ conversations I had growing up.

“If I was president I would end world hunger… I would make lip balm free for all… Roll out electric cars… Sack David Cameron.”

The list goes on. The point of the game is that it doesn’t have to be realistic… What would be the fun in that? Who wants to hear “If I was president I would re-examine the country’s fiscal policy with the aim of blah, blah, blah.”

It is meant to be outlandish, it is meant to be far fetched, it’s meant to be different. Sod it, I if I was president I would give citizens free wine and gin on tap.

But never when I was playing such games did I hear anyone say: “If I was president I would create huge, towering gold statues of myself that slowly rotate so that the sun is always on my face. And I would cover the country in even more statues… Of myself. And marble, there will be marble everywhere.”

But that is exactly what President Saparmyrat Niyazov of Turkmenistan did. Ruling as ‘Turkmenbashi’, which means leader of the Turkmen, he embarked on a truly bizarre dictatorship from 1991 to 2006 when he died.

One of his most popular policies was free petrol and gas for all. Gas remains free today, while petrol costs about 12p a litre and residents get 120 litres free a month anyway. Mental.

But it gets more mental. Aside from actually naming a city after himself – yes you can visit Turkmenbashi on the west coast of Turkmenistan today – he also embarked on a white marble building project so big that I felt my sunglasses did almost nothing to shade my eyes from the vast brightness when walking around the capital.




The apartment blocks are white marble, the hotels are white marble, the business centres and shopping centres are white marble and that is before we get onto the university, the palaces and mosques, which quite frankly display enough white marble and gold to blind a man with Primark sunglasses on a summer’s day. Because that’s another thing – this white marbleness just rises out of the desert as incongruous as a camel in Oxford Street, London. It’s all very odd.


Here’s Turkmenbashi himself, just draping a gold jacket over his gold sholder, with his gold hand… infront of a monument that looks a bit like a posh toilet plunger.

Even the subways are prettydamn swanky.



In fact I was reliably informed by a sweet girl at an Ashgabat market that the capital recently made it into the Guinness Book of Records for being the most white marbled city, or something. Well, as I say, every president has his dreams.

Despite the fact that I now see Turkmenbashi adorned in gold robes, sitting on a white marble throne saying: “If I was president I’d create a white marbled city”, while his minions politely cough, remind him that he is in fact president and watch him clap his hands in glee and order in bus loads of white marble, I actually felt quite sorry for him. Kind of.

You see in 1948 the entire city of Ashgabat was wiped out in a huge earthquake, killing two thirds of the citizens including Turkmenbashi’s two brothers and mother.

You could imagine any nation that had suffered such an enormous loss may want a monument of sorts to commemorate their loved ones, right?

Ladies and gents allow me to present just that.


Here we have ‘baby Turkmenbashi’ being saved from the earthquake when he was eight years old. He is being carried out by a bull, which we were told represents his mother who carried him to safety before dying herself. This sits on top of the Earthquake Museum.

But it gets better. Turkmenbashi wrote a book. Clearly a man with a lot to say and 5 million subjects to read it, he wrote it, got it published in more than 100 languages and then launched it into space. That’s right, there is a copy of Ruhnama (which I am told is a collection of his thoughts and philosophies) floating around in space. He also did what any sane author would do and built a huge gold and pink monument of the book in central Ashgabat.


Then there’s the giant ‘Arch of Neutrality’, a huge rocket-like beast with a gold statue of Turkmenbashi holding his arms out to the city, with flame-like gold leafs behind him. It has recently been moved from a prime spot near the presidential palace to an out of town manicured garden spot. Perhaps a sign that it was too much for the Turkmen, or perhaps more probably, the new president, who has taken to putting up pictures of himself around the country, felt there wasn’t room for the two of them. ‘No statues of the new president, yet,’ our guide told us.



But my favourite obscenity of all has to be the Turkmenbashi Mosque. It has the air of being built for Islam from afar but as you get closer you realise actually it is just another oversized Turkmenbashi monument. And it’s quite oversized. In fact, it is the largest mosque in Central Asia and can hold a whopping 10,000 people.


And just incase your thinking I’m perhaps being a little rash and unfair in claiming Turkmenbashi has glorified himself in building a mosque, allow me to read the inscription above the mosque entrance: ‘Ruhnama is a holy book; the Quran is Allah’s book.’ Oh, and it is also in his boyhood home of Gypjak.

Inside (no pics allowed) we were greeted with more than 20 huge marble pillars, a dazzling dome and a carpet of intricate detail that was apparently weaved by more than 100 of the finest carpet makers around. In the distance at the end of the vast circular room, we saw 10 men on their knees facing Mecca.

To the right of the mosque lies the huge white marble mausoleum, guarded by soldiers, where Turkmenbashi now lies with his family. It seems a fitting ending for a man whose biggest dreams and surviving legacy revolves purely around marble and gold.

In the meantime I have a new game to play on the long journeys through the Turkmen desert: ‘If I was a megalomaniac I would…’

Travel tips

Ashgabat is not an easy city to get around without a car. The roads are endlessly wide and long, the monuments and attractions are quite spread out across the city – and the bus network is a complete mystery. Unidentifiable bus route maps can be found at the bus stops but we could not make any sense of them.


You’ll be waiting a while at the bus stops, even if they are the nicest ones of Central Asia.

We found the best way to get around was by hitching lifts from ‘unofficial taxis’. Just stick your thumb out on the road and someone looking to make a few bucks will pick you up. General rule of thumb is 2 Turkmen Manats per person for city journeys.

World in Pictures: Baku, Azerbaijan

Places with pavements that are too clean alarm me. I am used to pigeon-crap splattered floors that have been discoloured by dozens of discarded pieces of chewing gum, spat out then slowly and gently trodden into paving slabs over the years. I am used to frowning and shaking my head at occasional pieces of litter on the floor – or, as was the case in our Nottingham street, entire contents of wheelie bins strewn out for all to see.

So one of the first thing I noticed about Baku was how clean its streets were. They were not just clean, they sparkled – as if polished by a team of undercover street fairies who dance over them in silk shoes when the city sleeps. And this unnerved me.





But then you step into the old town and it feels a bit like a set out of Aladdin. Cobbled pavements are lined with ‘magic carpets’ and little stone doors lead into cave-like shops selling richly decorated fabrics and shiny brass trinkets. But even the odd, cobbled little stones on the ground were very clean.




But the prize for the cleanest, most sparkling floor in all of Baku must go to the marble viewing platform. Yes you heard me right, a far cry from the well-trodden floors of the Eiffel Tower or London Eye pods, Baku has a grand, shiny marble staircase (a bit like that one in the Sound of Music house, but this is outside) that leads up to a huge, impressive viewing platform with tremendous views across the city. The floor was so shiny I needed sunglasses to look down. And, to top it off, it was built in honour of Eurovision.


As we said our farewells to Baku (via a three-day ferry crossing, but more on that later), I concluded, just as I once did about tablecloths determining the expense of restaurants, that street cleanliness is indeed a clue to a city’s wealth. And that I am more more likely to fall in love with the poorer cousins of the street scene.

Travel tips

Baku is a very expensive city for budget travellers. The cheapest accommodation in Baku that we could find, after searching countless websites, was the Caspian hostel. It has a fab location in the middle of the old walled town but was overpriced. It cost 16 manat (about £13) for a dorm bed in a room that was cramped with beds. In saying that it was clean enough and the owner was friendly and helpful.

I would also really recommend the old city audio walking tour. It costs 5 Manat, takes about two hours and really brings the old town to life. Well worth it. Baku is also great for shopping and makes for an ideal place to stock up before travelling east to Central Asia.