Saturday, 26 June 2010

BReatHin bLiSsFL bALkAn BeAuTy

Sometimes finding a place for the night can be a bit tricky. The day we arrived in Rijeka was one of these times.

The morning started in a gorgeous spot just after the border between Italy and Slovenia. This was just off a small country road, in a field with a few very orderly grapevine rows and a tiny cemetery on the top of the hill. Our spot was tucked into a corner of the field, opposite the road and just out of sight. Other than the now always present buzzing bloodsuckers it was perfect. Flat, quiet, hidden, spacious, soft and on beautiful hills. We ate just after watching the sun set over Italy.

The morning after, while tatting down and packing our gear we heard the noise of an engine approaching. Peeping out of our corner we spotted the farmer rolling into the field. Note to Self: if a field looks like it was tended yesterday, it will probably also be tended tomorrow. Quietly and still hidden away, we finished packing and loading our luggage.

Trying to slip away unnoticed was not likely to work as we had to cross the whole open field, so with a bit of apprehension we decided to walk towards the farmer. Him and his wife were so engrossed in tending their vines that they did not notice us until we were less then 5m away. We probably could have snuck away after all, but we had decided that showing a friendly face, pretend that you are lost and ask for directions is generally a preferable strategy to trying to sneak off in broad daylight.

The lady looked at us quizzically, smiling but obviously wondering where the hell we'd come from. The man instead was only friendly and, unquestioning, was trying to help us find the way. I guess ladies just have a slightly broader vision than the single task at hand. Of course the whole conversation had happened in mispronounced name-places, shakes of the head, pointing and big grins. We waved goodbye as we pedalled off.

The hills between Slovenia and Croatia are so very beautiful (I'm going to have to learn some new words to say how good stuff is. Openoffice thesaurus suggested pulchritudinous and splendiferous). They reminded us of the reasons why we are on this journey. The empty road crossed coniferous woodlands, open high pastures and diminutive villages. When our water started to run low we stopped at a house to ask for a refill. We left with all of our bottles full, an unopened 2l bottle of Sprite (mmmh), another bunch of smiles to remember and a new word: hvala, thank you.

Hitting the coast of Croatia instead was not quite so idyllic. Luckily we had just stopped for a wee coffee break when a flash summer storm hit. Nothing serious, just a hell of a lot of big fat drops for a few minutes to announce that the evening was not going to be quite so mellow.

The campsite we were planning to stop at was full of bikers, Hell's Angels types rather than cyclotourists. The music was loud and the place looked messy and dirty. We would have stayed for the party hadn't the cops already arrived when we showed up. So we carried on.

After a bit more pedalling we arrived in Rijeka. Now, the coast of Croatia is not flat. The western Balkans in fact just end up in the sea. Or maybe they just raise straight up from the bottom of the sea. Some become islands, some great big mountains on the mainland. This was the last point on our map, so getting a new one was a priority. But dealing with a completely new language and a new currency can be quite daunting, especially when you have no idea of the exchange rate (funny thing in Croatia: banks are closed on a Sunday) and everything seems to cost in the hundreds. We figured out a vague approximation of the value of the Kuna by looking at the price of petrol and Coca-cola. The language issue was also quickly resolved. Most people in Croatia seem to speak at least four languages.

At the tourist office we learnt that the nearest campsite was 30km away. The time was 5.30p.m. and we had already covered 50km of hot ups and downs. Generally we would be looking for a quiet free camping spot, but this area was not offering any. This was in fact a grimy industrial bit of coast: big factory followed shipyard followed busy harbour. It was sweaty work trying to get away from it.

At some point, along a long descent on a very unpleasant busy road, some arse honked their horn just behind me. I was startled and reacted badly sticking out my middle finger. Mistake. The car stopped and the five muppets inside confronted me. Luckily the situation defused quite quickly: we did not speak the same language and they were not excessively aggressive, just threatening. When they sped off telling me to f*** off I breathed a sight of relief.

There I learnt an important lesson about not aggravating people. No matter what, lascia perdere, foggetaboutit.

Finally, after a few more hills and signs telling us about closed campsites we reached our destination. The site itself was not bad, although in this country the space for the tents is often second-rate to campervan and caravan pitches. The only small issue was the blumming ginormous oil refinery directly opposite in the cute little bay. Kids were playing in the water and at night the lights of the huge INA complex looked very pretty reflected in the calm sea. But Isla and I this time around decided to give swimming a miss.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

AmbLiN fRu d streEts o VeNiCe wE stuMBL in2 gOLdeN La Fenice

Stayed in Mestre for the night. This is the dirty industrial bit of Venice still on the mainland. Momma had found for us a fairly cheap B&B run by the Caponi Bros. Honest to God, these guys were Sicilian. No wonder I spent the whole of the day after whistling the theme tune for The Godfather.

In the evening we took a train to Venezia Santa Lucia (remember An American Wherewolf in London?). This is one of the islands of fancy Venice. Like all who come to the town first time from time immemorial we crossed the Ponte degli Scalzi. It was splendid romantic to spend the evening getting lost in the alleys of the old town with no aim in mind other than to find beautiful corners where to rest our gazes.

Venice lives up to its name as being one of the most magical and miraculous cities. It felt strangely familiar, I liked to think I was there in the 1750s barely able to breathe in my corset, the weight of my dress drenching me in sweat, while having illicit affairs in gondolas. Then the very sad realization dawned on me, it was to do with some misspent time playing Tomb Raider. We spent the whole day there just wandering aimlessly through the maze of streets. Crossing over its murky water ways, stumbling into fish markets and trying to run away from tourists...impossible.

The day after we came back to town and after a bit of wandering and wondering we walked past a theatre. On the steps, al fresco, there was a small classical concerto. We stopped to listen to the exceptionally played music. After a relaxed drink in a bar nearby we decided to see if we could visit the inside of the theatre. As we walked in, we were met by two ushers who informed us that it was only possible to visit the theatre if we were attending a show. We sighted 'ooh' but they did not stop. From an envelope to their side two tickets came out. The ushers ripped the tabs and handed the remaining two halves to us. They smiled us inside pointing to the second floor.

Shortly after we were very surprised when we found ourselves watching opera in English, sitting in one of the boxes next to the Royal Box.

This theatre, La Fenice, is not your ordinary run of the mill affair. It was originally built in 1774, burned to the ground and was reconstructed twice. It is also one of the leading opera houses and most famous theatres in Europe. Naked gold and marble ladies loosely draped in vermillion hung from every corner smiling.

The piece itself (The Turning of the Screw) was not exceptional, and although the music was good and all the performers well accomplished and professional, the storyline itself was a bit uneventful. Nonetheless, the point of the afternoon was to have lucked out so much to have entered such an exclusive place completely for free. For this we have to thank the national strike where the theatre staff, instead of aggravating their patrons, decided to open their doors to us plebs.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

4m hOmE wE'Ve aRrivd hoMe, 4m c 2 c

post and recipes to come.. forgot it all in Genoa.