My three months in Asia were everything I could have hoped for – exotic, entertaining and eye-opening – but also challenging at times and certainly character-building! So, as sure as I am that I’ll be going back for more, on returning to Europe I was ready for a change. That didn’t do much to alleviate the reverse culture shock though. When I found myself with a group of people in Munich waiting patiently for the green man in order to cross a road, despite there not being a single car in sight, it was hard to believe that just days earlier I had been doing battle on the streets of Phnom Penh. If it wasn’t for all the photos (and believe me, when there are 75 of you, there are a lot of photos!) I would have wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing.
Munich’s not on our Remote Year itinerary, but the lure of the EPO is strong – especially when you get summoned to an Appeal hearing on an Opposition case you’ve been working on for the past six years – so I took 10 days away from the rest of the group to check-in on real life, flex my oral proceedings muscles… and repack for winter. I’ll admit it was a well-timed summons! Before flying to Munich I was back in our London office for a few days to finish preparing the case and to reacquaint myself with wonders such as Pret a Manger and normal milk. Not to mention paper – one of my all-time favourite inventions, it turns out.
December in Munich is about as Christmassy as it gets – Christmas markets, lights and decorations everywhere – so you can’t help but feel a little hard done by, bypassing all that and heading instead to the EPO which is possibly the only place there immune to festive spirit. But all went well and, after a long day debating the ins and outs of holograms with the Board of Appeal, we left with an early Christmas present in the form of a maintained patent – and a happy client.
After a quick 24 hour turnaround, it was time for my sixth flight and fifth country in ten days as I headed to Split in Croatia to rejoin Remote Year, where the rest of the group had arrived from Cambodia a few days earlier. I have to admit I’d had reservations about going to Split in December given that it is really known as a summer sailing destination, but I was quickly won over. The clear, bright skies gave a whole new meaning to the term winter sun, and whilst it could rarely be described as warm, the crisp sea air certainly blew the cobwebs out.
Plus, while it’s true that some of Split’s best-known attractions are less appealing in the off-season, and not everything is open, you do get to see a whole different side to the city. Behind the big marinas and palm tree-lined promenade lies a warren of Roman ruins, the core of which was once the palace of the Emperor Diocletian, built around 1700 years ago. The city has long since spilled out beyond the palace walls but the historic centre remains car-free, making it a wonderful place to wander through, getting lost down alleyways, finding squares full of cafes and turning corners to find yourself amongst lines of Roman columns. Up high, the bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius offers incredible views of the city and the sea, whilst down low you can explore the markets and labyrinth-like rooms in the palace’s substructure, built solely to hold it up.
Next stop was Dubrovnik, about 4 hours’ drive down the spectacular Croatian coastline – and Bosnian in fact, as you have to cross through Bosnia to get from one part of Croatia to another. Walking through one of the two huge drawbridges into the old, walled city, it really does feel like you are entering some sort of fairytale castle, especially dressed as it was for Christmas. Everything – the pavements and the buildings – is in matching white stone which seems to glimmer in the sunshine. There is also an abundance of cats which drape themselves elegantly on any available surface, including doorsteps, walls and even ATMs. It wouldn’t surprise me if they are the ones in charge of this other-worldly city.
While in Dubrovnik, I couldn’t resist ticking another country off the list and so we spent a day in Montenegro which is just another hour’s drive south. Here we skirted around the stunning Bay of Kotor, an inlet you just can’t take your eyes off, to the old city of Kotor itself – which, dare I say it, proved even more charming than Dubrovnik. With a less-polished and more lived-in atmosphere, it felt more like a well-loved doll’s house, perhaps. Every bit as beautiful though.
Back then to Split, and with only a week left in the country (my Munich intermission having cut the month short) plus the small matter of Christmas to attend to, we squeezed in visits to the cities of Sibenik and Zadar – where you really can hear the music of the ocean, played by waves on its sea organ – as well as Krka national park, home to few vowels but more than making up for it in stunning waterfalls.
So, looking back, it seems there was a lot packed into the month – but one way or another it’s also been refreshing and reviving. Perhaps a change really is as good as a rest. Or better, in fact.