Saturday, 26 September 2015

Rovinj: A Croatian Odyssey Begins

The border crossing between Slovenia and Croatia was made less stressful by the bottle of Orangina that Yannick found at a petrol station. We would soon learn that the French soft drink was popular among Croats and we would be able to find the "orange gold" in most supermarkets, and sometimes it was even chilled! 
I examined my fresh passport stamp as we ate a picnic lunch by the side of the road. This was the first non-Schengen country we entered since arriving in France, and I felt unaccountably nervous while handing over my documents to the authorities. Luckily nothing was found to be amiss and we were waved through quickly. Hello, Croatian coastline! On the drive to Rovinj, we were bombarded by roadside advertisements in English for dino parks, resorts, ranches, grills and naturist campings (aka nudist). Instead of subjecting ourselves to these, we enjoyed the rugged scenery which we felt was like a greener version of Greece. 
Rovinj, Croatia (Rovinj, Hrvatska)
We based our trip here on a Lonely Planet recommendation stating that the old town that takes up an egg-shaped peninsula is the star of coastal Istria and fishermen can still be seen mending their nets before lunchtime. Rovinj was originally built on an island, and it was only connected to the mainland by filling in the channel of water in 1763.
After Kopur and Piran, you might think we'd be bored of medieval towns on the waterfront, but you would be wrong. 
It's difficult to tire of such charming little streets, even when they are filled with shops selling water boots, snorkels and seashells. Olive oil was also a popular commodity, as olive trees grow as well here as they do in Spain and Greece. 
Croatian weather proved to be sunny and hot, which made navigating along worn cobblestones manageable. Already slippery under clear skies, in rain I imagine they cause accidents. 
Locals had little paths down to their slice of waterfront, where they could be seen having a drink, smoke, swim, or touting their handicrafts. 
Many buildings were crumbly, but showed lavish decorations of a bygone time. Populated for hundreds of years, Rovinj came under the control of the Venetian Empire and was a highly defensible naval stronghold until the fall of Venice in 1797. Still a sought after town, it was then part of the Austrian Empire until WWI, the Kingdom of Italy until 1947, and Yugoslavia until declaring independence as part of Croatia in 1991. 
Our carpark was right next to where several fishing ships had docked, and we saw a small crowd had gathered. As we approached, we saw that it was not because of the boats themselves, but because some scary-looking jellyfish were floating around near the surface!
Aaah! They looked way more complex than the puckered blue seafriends I've seen washed up on New Zealand beaches. Much cuter was the tiny black puppy that ambled along as I was staring into the water. Something snapped inside me and I was reduced to cooings of "awww" and "ohmigosh" until I was given smelling salts and came to my senses. 
Next on the itinerary was Pula for some even more old town sights including ancient Roman ruins. 

Today's post was almost called: The Historical Intricacies Within-- OMIGOSH A TINY DOG!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Koper and Piran: We attack at dawn!

Koper, Slovenia (Koper, Slovenija)
On our route down the Slovenian coast towards Croatia, we popped into the quaint town of Koper. Only some ten kilometres from Trieste, we felt as though we hadn't left Italy at all as it was such a quick drive!
Narrow streets were lined with houses of varying levels of faded beauty, and it was quiet even though cruise ships were moored out in the harbour. The difference between the small old town and the dockside new town was stark and I couldn't grasp why tourists would want to hang out in ugly restaurants next to a carpark when venturing just a little way down cobblestones streets led to you beautiful places. 
A smattering of rain added another level of beauty that blue skies can't show. 
Our visit was brief, but a short visit is all it takes to explore the old town. On our way back to the car, we became somewhat lost and consoled ourselves by taking cat pictures. 

Piran, Slovenia (Piran, Slovenija)
Famous for its medieval streets, Piran is understandably flooded by tourists intent on sightseeing. 
As the historical centre is mainly blocked off to cars, we parked in a maybe not illegal spot at the top of a nearby hill and walked down from there. The views were spectacular as the warmth of the failing light showcased the earthy tones of the cluttered buildings.  
The church tower can be seen from the majority of the town and dominates most photographs. A wander up to the church revealed that a concert of Giuseppe Tartini's works would be playing that evening. Strolling through the town led us to believe that Piran was obsessed with the composer, as many things bore his name including restaurants and hotels. 
That's fair enough too, as Tartini was born here in 1692 (then part of the Venetian Empire), and has an interesting backstory: he began to play the violin while staying in the sanctuary of the monastery of St Francis in Assisi. He fled there after being accused of abduction when he married a woman who was favoured by a powerful cardinal. Tartini is believed to be the first owner of a Stradivarius violin, as he bought one directly from Stradavari in 1715. 
Like Koper, thin streets zigzag up and down slopes and look wholly attractive. Though I could see just how majestic Piran was, it was incredibly difficult for me to enjoy when it was swarming with tourists. We devised a plan: to wake up unfathomably early for those on holiday and see the town with fewer tourists, thereby allowing us to appreciate its charm. (Side note - I nearly got shat on while taking the above photo.)
The waterfront was bustling with restaurant touters, ambling visitors and amateur fishermen. With amusement I watched a paddleboarder wiggle around in the water for a while and then either fall off his board or jump off it for a swim, it was hard to tell. We walked to the end where what we first thought was a lighthouse showed itself to be another church. This one was odd in that it appeared to be fortified, perhaps because of its proximity to the sea and potential naval assaults. 
The main square was awash with activity, including a musical event that was setting up, a leader regularly informing bystanders that they would begin at nine o'clock. There wasn't much interest, probably because they weren't playing pieces by Tartini. 
Retiring to our campsite (where as low-paying tent-bearers we had been banished far from the beach onto the 'terrace' where mosquitos flocked), we slept for a few hours before our alarm sounded and we stumbled unwashed back to the old town for our tourist-free vigil. Success! The streets were as sleepy as we were, with only locals walking dogs and deliverymen out and about. It was during this time that I got a good feel for Piran, which has a deep sense of antiquity to it. I highly recommend an early start in order to see the town for what it once was. After sating ourselves with countless gorgeous empty streets we flung ourselves headlong into our tents and slept away our sad memories of a busier Piran. 

Today's post was almost called: Prime Tent Pitches with Terrace Views and Vibrant Insect Nightlife!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Trieste: Gelato deserving applause and receiving thunderclaps

Trieste, Italy (Trieste, Italia)
Being in Ljubljana meant being tantalisingly close to our beloved Italy. We couldn't see the harm in stopping by for a short visit, so we did our research and set a course for Trieste in the very northeast of the Land of Pizza and Gelato. 
Being a seaside city, our first experience of Trieste was of wandering along the waterfront towards the main square. Boats of all shapes and sizes were moored off the coast, and a man in a strikingly orange jacket sketched the wharf. 
Turning away from the seaside, we walked next to an inlet which leads to the Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia - the largest square facing onto a waterfront in Italy, and quite picturesque. One of the quaint boats had been neglected and its buoyancy had been watered down somewhat. Get a bilge on there quick!
Fabulous facades lined the area, some with exquisite gold detailing. It was easy to forget your footing as you stumbled onwards staring. 
A statue of the writer James Joyce resides here, and he's just the right size that you feel the urge to put your arm around his shoulders. Many writers have spent time in Trieste, but Joyce (who lived here ten years) is particularly popular among Triestians. 
Moving more inland, we drank smoothies at a little café where the owner's tiny dog yapped at anything that it didn't like. It fully sank in that I was back in Italy when a moustachioed man came in and greeted the vocal dog with "Ciao, piccola!" Just to let it sink in that much further we stopped by Grom, our favourite gelateria chain, which turned out to only be about fifteen meters down the street from the café! Crema come una volta was on my list, and luckily they were serving it. The flavour is shown in English as "egg cream", but it's fairly indescribable (and delicious) - in Italian it translates to "cream like once upon a time". 
The ancient Roman theatre that was only unearthed in 1938 sits juxtaposed right next to several much newer housing developments. Though their ages are worlds apart, their shabbiness is comparable. 
An even older relic come una volta was the Roman archway Arco di Riccardo dating from 33BC. 
One of the old city gates, it was also integrated with more modern constructions, which made it stand out more than if it was on its lonesome. 
The carpark we happened to stow our vehicle at was housed in part of what first appeared to be ruins of a Roman aqueduct, but upon exploration turned out to be an abandoned railway station. Stirrings from inside led us to believe that squatters had descended onto the disintegrating building, and we didn't linger. 
Finding our campsite should have been easy, as it was on a main road, and yet Denis' navigation system was determined to lead us up a series of narrower and steeper roads until at times we weren't sure we could continue. I suppose that it may have been more direct in an 'as the crow flies' manner, but with anything bigger than a Vespa we would have been nervous. However, the harrowing ride gave us some spectacular views of the city just as the sun was setting, and we eventually broke through the tiny streets onto the main road so it was totally worth it. 
The view from our campsite was excellent as well, though this view is from the entrance and not our actual tent pitch. While in the Netherlands we were often shown where to set up by a staff member on a bicycle, here we were led there by a woman in a zippy Fiat. Once our tents were erected, we drove down to the city (on the proper road this time - I had to navigate us the old fashioned way) for a classic Italian dinner. The best part was when we caught a glimpse of a wild boar as it flashed across the road in front of our car! He had curved little tusks. It was unreal. 
Once we found a pizza place that was both open and had an available parking spot that was kinda-not-really nearby, we tucked in to scrumptious marinara pizza. Though marinara is often confused for seafood (possibly because of the similarity to the word 'marine'), a true marinara is a herbed garlicky tomato sauce. The origin story is debated, but one source claims that cooks on Italian ships invented it, as the acidity of the tomatoes meant it could be kept for relatively long periods of time at sea. We also rather bravely tried a pizza with "panna", though it wasn't to our taste - a bland dairy product like slightly sweet cream. The kind waitress was concerned when she saw we hadn't eaten it all and asked us if it was "buono", to which we guiltily assured her it was. 
That night as we slept, the biggest thunderstorm of my life rolled in and pummelled our tents with what felt like endless rain. The booming lightening cries woke me up multiple times, but the patter of droplets lulled me back into slumber each time. Unexpectedly, when we arose in the morning it had passed and we were able to disassemble the tents under blue skies. Cleaning the splashes of mud from the sides of our tent wasn't easy, but I'm immensely grateful we didn't have to attempt that in a deluge. The rain did pick up again once we returned to the city, and as such we hid in a gelateria. 
It was great. There were so many delicious flavours to decide between. One gelato in particular contained some magical white chocolate, which was exactly like melted white chocolate but was somehow frozen! 
Dashing for the carpark in a break, we drove out of the centre just as it started to bucket down again. 
This was clearly an unmanageable amount of rain, as gutters weren't taking in water, streets turned into rivers and a couple of sewer grates had popped off and became fountains (thankfully there was no excrement to be seen). We witnessed a driver in front of us slow to a halt as a drenched rat was washed across the road and into the deep gutter. It disappeared and we thought it would be overcome by the water, but then we erupted into cheering when we saw its head break through the surface and it swam to the safety of the curb.
On the outskirts of Trieste, we endeavoured to visit Italy's only extermination camp, which was active from 1943-1945. 
Originally a rice husking factory, the name remains the Risiera di San Sabba and stands as a monument to the some five thousand Jews who passed through its doors. After evading a puddle that spanned the width of the street and looked to be more of a small pond, we found the entrance and discovered it to be shut. Walking around the side, we spotted a side door ajar and asked a man inside if the Risiera was still open to the public. He informed us that there had been extensive flooding from the night before, and invited us in to see what appeared to be a square lake encircled by brick factory buildings. Curse you, thunderstorm! We'll just have to return to Trieste one day in order to visit properly. #i'llbeback

Today's post was almost called: Some of my Best Friends are Ice Creams

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Predjama Party: A Betrayal Most Fecal

Predjama, Slovenia (Predjama, Slovenija)
The Predjama castle is a nigh impenetrable fortress set amongst vertical cliffs in a densely forested area of the Slovenian countryside. 
I was awoken by Yannick upon arrival in the carpark after a brief but successful roadtrip nap. Quite groggy, I was plied with Toblerone in an effort to bring me back to my senses. 
The road leading to the castle became slick as it had begun to rain and cleverly we had forgotten our umbrellas in the car. It was under the shelter of the ticket office that we debated whether or not to pay the dear entrance fee to see inside. The attendant wasn't any help when asked what we would be able to see, but we finally settled on purchasing tickets. Approaching the front gates, we were presented with complimentary audioguides, which made the visit considerably more enjoyable. 
A posh Slovenian lady told us all about the five layers of the castle, and informed us that there were many owners, the most famous being Ernesto Predjama. Presented in fables as a Slovenian Robin Hood, Ernesto robbed merchant caravans and hid in the nearby castle when pursued. He was besieged for a year and a half, and during that time he taunted his assailants by gifting them fresh cherries and other delicacies that certainly didn't grow in the rocky confines of his hideout (these were acquired through a secret passageway to the top of the mountain). They became more irate until they were able to convince a castle servant to betray Ernesto and divulge the weakest point in defences. It was in the lavatory that Ernesto met his end - from a well-timed catapult that struck the loo wall as he was doing his business. 
As well as a secret passage for tasty treats, the castle contains some excellent methods for withstanding assault. The most important is how fresh drinking water drips down through the tiny crevices in the rock, which was then collected in great stone barrels. 
However useful this moisture is for sustaining life within the castle, it does mean that it's an incredibly damp and cold place to live. Only one room in the fortress was able to be heated - a bedroom, which would often double as a living room and sometimes even triple as a toilet. A small window connected this cosy room to a chapel, where the priest could preach to lowly peasants in the chill while the noble family who lived inside could worship with toasty digits. 
The bell used to call residents to mass is now allegedly good luck to ring. I'm not a superstitious person so I avoided assailing my ears. 
As the castle is built into a natural cave system, there are countless rooms that make use of the cavernous spaces. In many areas, the merger between natural and man-made structure was seamless, as cliff walls faded to patterned stone with difficulty in pinpointing the exact location where one ends and the other begins. 

A terrace was built in such a way that one can look out across the land while it is raining and not be affected by a single drop, as the cliff juts out above to create a natural awning. 
The dungeon was located at the bottom of a twisting pit in the cliff, where agonised pleas for release would echo alarmingly and probably drive prisoners mad. A floor above, you were able to look down at the glimmer of candlelight that illuminated a strung-up mannequin. 
The drawbridge is positioned right over a mighty drop to the rocks below. 
From a room one level above the drawbridge are perfectly placed murder holes through which rocks, the contents of chamber pots or boiling oil could be dropped onto attackers. 
Construction began in the thirteenth century, yet has been revamped countless times over the centuries, which has led to bricked-up doors at noticeably different levels to the current floor. Much of the current version of the castle dates to the sixteenth century. 
All in all, I'm immensely glad I decided to fork out €9 to see the inner workings of Predjama Castle, and you'll be happy to know that we picnicked in our car afterwards and Toblerone was once again on the menu. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

Lake Bled and the Soca Valley: Hazard lights - a way of life

Lake Bled, Slovenia (Blejsko jezero, Slovenija)
From Ljubljana, the drive to Lake Bled became incrementally more mountainous until we were inundated by the Julian Alps. The only hitch in our drive was a four car pile-up on the road in front of us. Luckily nobody was hurt, and with some stop-starting, we were able to make it past on the other side of the road while insurance matters were discussed. 
The first stop once reaching the town of Bled was not, as one may expect, to see the lake. Instead, it was to find and eat the fabled local specialty kremna rezina, which was kind of like the inside of a pavlova mixed with a light custard, sandwiched by a thin layer of sugared pastry. To acquire this, we parked illegally with our hazard lights on and ran into the Slaščičarna Šmon bakery (this is customary practice in Italy and much of Eastern Europe, though to us it will forever be known as Den Bosch Style from the time when we pulled a similar manoeuvre in the Netherlands to acquire soft creamy chocolatey pastry balls). 
As the town itself is very touristy to cater to those who come to see the lake, we again were unsuccessful in finding legitimate parking near the lakefront so we popped out to have a look. The scene was picturesque, with clear blue waters, sky and mountains, and a tiny white church on an island. Apart from checking out the view, we weren't interested in staying longer as although the area was nice, it was crowded and gimmicky. 
The most endearing tourist activity I saw was a man with a pony. He had no signs for advertising - the pony, who grazed happily when at rest, did all that for him. Occasionally children would approach and they would be led around the park a few times. 
The four kilometre drive to Vintgar Gorge, which we heard was stunning, delivered us into an overspill carpark. Not realising how popular the walk through the gorge would be, we were surprised to wait in the queue for entry tickets (€4) for ten minutes. From there, the crowds did not diminish and we were whisked along the tiny paths with an immovable cliff face on one side and a sheer drop onto the rocks and swirling waters below on the other. 
Though I feared for my life on occasion during the 40 minute walk (not including time to stop and take photos), the views were worth it. The water was so clear that it was great fun to watch fish float around, and the jagged landscape held a certain rugged beauty. 
At the end of the walk, an ice cream café had been set up and I wondered how they carted all that ice cream in. Do several strongmen carry backpack loads in each morning? Or is there another path than the walkway? 
After resting our legs, we ventured on to the nearby lake at Bohinj. 
A similar landscape to Bled, the lake was popular among swimmers and paddle boarders. It was this view that we enjoyed while eating our picnic lunch. Cookies from a Bohinj bakery were consumed with gusto, though as they were the size of small dinner plates we resignedly saved what we couldn't finish for later in the day. The ants that undertook expeditions to the vast land of our picnic mat were much larger than the ants we were used to, but instead of bothering us they carted off unwanted crumbs as any normal-sized ant would. 
Wanting to peek into an interesting sounding church, we drove along but found that any carpark in the vicinity was crammed tight with tourists' cars as well as tour buses. Instead of waiting around for an inordinate amount of time for a space to free up, we gazed at the exterior from the car windows. 

The Soča Valley region, Slovenia (Posočje, Slovenija)
Our drive from Bohinj to the valley was clustered with cute little villages and dynamic views of the impressive mountainscape. At one point some cows crossed the road, one stopping for a while and munching thoughtfully in our direction before wandering off, allowing us to continue.  
It was already late enough in the day that we needed to find a campsite by the time we reached Kobarid at the northern end of the Soča Valley. With two options to choose from, we opted for the one that didn't smell strongly of poo. 
The drive to that camping took us straight to one of the most popular views of the valley, in which white cliffs give way to crystalline blue waters deep below, and mountains towering around. The valley is famous for the WWI clash that took place here, with millions of soldiers fighting among the crags. 

From the middle of the narrow bridge with cars rushing past is where you must take this iconic photo. It's difficult to believe that it's real until you're there, as the colours are so eye-popping!
For dinner, as restaurants in the town were expensive or seafoody or both, we bought burek from a small supermarket and picnicked back at the campsite. This is always a good option for a cheap meal in Slovenia, yet not so healthy (especially when followed by the remnants of giant cookies for dessert). 
With an early start the next morning, we drove the length of Soča Valley. It was drizzly at times, and that weather coupled with the early morning mist made for some pretty river views. 
A town that stood out from the rest was Kanal, where pink plastered houses stood proudly atop the valley cliffs. Though the roads around Lake Bled and the valley were windy and often narrow, the scenery that unfolded around each bend was a new delight.