Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cruising ‘round Croatia.

I’m not sure you can really call island hopping on car ferries ‘cruising’, but it’s the closest we came.

After leaving Slovenia we did an overnighter in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. The compact old centre really had a great vibe to it with a high density of cafes and bars. The national sport seems to be sitting about in the sun sipping coffee or wine. We fitted right in.

Cafe Society
We checked out all the obligatory churches and other grand buildings and then joined the locals in the cafes and bars. The national dish of Croatia seems to be pizza, but we managed to have local dish of venison goulash for our dinner, accompanied by some very ordinary wine. The whites, mainly Malvasia, are rather lovely, but reds can leave a lot to be desired.

From there we headed to the coast through lovely country, similar to Slovenia – not surprising really!! Our first glimpse of the Dalmatian coast was breath-taking, but sadly the clouds came in, coming closer and closer until the whole region looked as though Christo had arrived and wrapped everything in grey silk.

Me swimming in the Adriatic at Senj - about 3pm
Sunset at Senj

We were hoping for the azure skies and turquoise waters of the tourist brochures, but we got 50 shades of grey instead. Even so our first camping spot by the sea was lovely and we got a decent sunset, so musn’t grumble. From Senj we head to the island of Krk. We stayed 2 nights and had good wander around – not the world’s most exciting island, but we liked it. Next stop the island of Cres, but the damn sea fog came in and we saw virtually nothing.

Island of Krk
We stayed in Pula on the Istrian Peninsula, but same thing – just shades of grey. We really didn’t see the Adriatic Sea at it’s best.

Driving north back into Italy, we stopped in Trieste and camped in a rather odd spot, more like a trailer park, with lots of permanent residents. Still, it was high up above Trieste with great views and decent restaurant. Can’t complain about a decent Linguine alle Vongole. Trieste is an interesting port town but not on the ‘don’t miss’ list for future reference. James Joyce wrote The Dubliners and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man here, so must have something going for it. I now feel obliged to read these. I’ll let you know how I get on!

Me having a chat with James Joyce in Trieste
We are now in Friuli region and parked by the cemetery in Udine. At least the neighbours will be quiet. There are no camping grounds in the region at all, which is a shame as it is a major white wine region and might have been interesting to check out a few producers. We settled for trying a few glasses of the local Friulano in a couple of bars.

Venetian Style Building in Udine
Friuli town of Cividale

From here we will head to Bologna for a few days and then on to Le Marche to stay with some friends of Lawrence’s from way back. We’ll stay a week if they’ll have us. It’ll be nice to stay put for a while as we have been on the move for a while.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Slumming It In Slovenia

We woke last Saturday morning, camping at 1250m to a winter wonderland. Lawrence got up to make my cup of tea and said casually “it’s snowing”. “What!” I exclaimed, and pulled up the blind to see fairy tale whiteness all round. So pretty from the comfort of your warm bed, but a different story having to pack up and get moving in it.
Winter Wonderland

Man from Snowy River

The snow turned to rain as we descended and we had a very low cloud, and a ‘no view’ drive – so different from the day before. However we made it to Slovenia and were happy to find a lovely campsite at Lake Bled.

We spent the next 2 days at Lake Bled cycling and walking, such a pretty spot! The highlight was meeting a young Australian couple from Newcastle (north of Sydney). They are on their ‘odyssey’ in Trevor the Trannie, a Ford Transit van that is literally a bed on wheels (
Lake Bled

They invited us to dinner and the amazing Sarah cooked us a 3 course Italian meal, on a one burner gas stove, sitting on the ground!! She made Carprese Salad with bruschetta, gnocchi with mozzarella AND an authentic tagliatelle carbonara, absolutely delicious. We supplied the table and chairs. It was about 5 degrees, but enough red wine and we all coped. It was a meal we won’t forget.

From there we drove to Lake Bohinj, another lovely location and did a brilliant 3 hour walk around the lake.
Lake Bohinj
Slovenia is, simply, pretty. Gentle mountains, pretty streams, rural landscapes, all bathed in the soft colours of autumn.

Next stop Ljubljana, the capital. We arrived to warm sunshine, so the first thing we did (no, not open a bottle of wine!), was the washing! The drive was a bit more exciting than expected as the road we hoped to take was closed, but we didn’t find that out until too late and needed to back track and take very long road with umpteen hairpin bends – quite a journey, but quite spectacular.

The city itself is small, compact and few hours can do it justice. There is a castle on the hill, but to be frank, it was restored to point of losing all its charm and character. A highlight was stumbling upon an Orthodox church where we met one of the caretakers who gave us an insight to the church and its history. A truly beautiful building, built in the Greek Cross style.
From there we drove to a campsite near the Croatian border in the southeast. We want to see Zagreb, but there is nowhere to stay, hence this site. It’s like a small town with several restaurants, a hotel, villages, water parks, fun parks, a spa, a wellness centre etc. It would be hell in the high season but, right now, it’s lovely. We need our bikes to get around, it’s so large.

We thought that we could get the train to Zagreb from here, but the timetable is unworkable, so we’ll stay overnight in a swank hotel and leave Boris to his own devices.

Today (Sunday) we did a 2 hour hilly bike ride through rural Slovenia. We rode through small pretty hamlets with unpronounceable names and steep vineyards, smiling politely at men with shotguns. We followed this, of course, with our traditional Sunday lunch, which turned out to be a very low key affair but the food was tasty and well cooked. I think this is the first restaurant we’ve been to without a wine list. The house wine was ‘interesting’.

Boris still attracts attention wherever we go. Are you really from Australia? How did you get it here? How will you get home? Where are you headed? “Vladivostok” I say, but really people are just interested and want to know what you are doing. It’s so easy to meet interesting people in campsites in Europe.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Rocky Mountain High

Now that you all have bad John Denver songs on your brain, I'll show you some photos of our drive today.  It was so extraordinary, that I thought a blog should be dedicated to it.

You don't need any description from me - just look at these Dolomites in the snow - with sun shining.

This is what a Unimog is meant to be used for! At 2200 metres and about minus 2 degrees.
It's impossible to describe what we drove through today, and photos do not do it justice. Suffice to say, it was probably the most amazing landscape we have seen to date.

We are now camped in 'the wild' and waiting to see if it will snow tonight. It's certainly cold enough, but fortunately Boris is very well insulated. It's about 2 degrees outside.

The Road

Let it Snow, let it snow, let it snow!!!

I did say that snow was forecast - but I don't think anybody really believed it! 

Anyway, here's the evidence. We are only at about 900 metres, so quite a surprise to wake up and find ourselves in a Christmas card. It will melt quickly as it's quite wet snow and only about 1-2 inches.

Boris in his first snow!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Don’t Mention the War!

We are in a brilliant campsite in the Alto Adige in the shadow of the Dolomites – but more commonly known as Süd Tirol. This bit of the world has only been a part of Italy since WW1, and it shows. The first language here is always German, rarely do we hear Italian spoken. The architecture is pure Tyrolean with a touch of Bavarian. I have to remind myself that we are still in Italy.

Local town of Seis


The campsite itself is full of Germans. There are about 3 Swiss, 1 Austrian, 1 Italian, us, and around 300 Germans. The standard greeting is ‘Gruss Gott’, which always makes me chuckle, as I think “what’s God got to do with it? Maybe He had a hand in building the bathrooms which are the best we’ve come across in our travels so far – really luxurious. In fact the whole site is fantastic - location, staff, views, facilities – 5 star all round.

The weather has been hit and miss – more ‘miss’ really as I was wondering if the Dolomites actually existed, being covered in clouds most of the time. One would teasingly poke its head out occasionally only to disappear again. Even the valley below would play tricks on us. We did some low level walking to neighbouring towns, etc waiting for the cloud to lift.

The walking trails here are wonderful – well signposted and easy to follow, so we have made the most of it. Day 4 we were rewarded with a fine day so took the opportunity of taking the cable car up the mountain to 1800 metres to start our walk.

The ‘Dollies’ really showed off that day – absolutely stunning scenery all around. Our 13 km walk was mostly at around 2200 metres, and being very Austrian, a café or a restaurant when you needed one.

Our high mountain walk
We stumbled on a wine and food festival in one of the towns, so naturally joined in the fun. Plenty of food and winetasting stalls, complete with oom-pah bands, lederhosen and dirndl skirts.

Band member taking time out!
The towns here are all impossibly neat, with balconies groaning under the weight of geraniums and petunias. There’s barely a leaf out of place or a deadhead to be seen. Firewood is obviously cut with a tape measure to hand.

The food is fusion Italian/German – and it kind of works. It’s not a food marriage that would normally spring to mind, but red wine risotto with speck tastes OK!

Today we did some serious wine tasting in the heart of the Alto Adige wine region. The cellar door bloke at Alois Lageder winery really knew his stuff and we must have tasted about 30 wines – such variety. Lovely cool climate Chardonnays, Pinot Blancs, Gewurtztraminer and quite a few indigenous varieties of variable appeal. Foolishly we bought a case of wine that I of course had to stuff into nooks and crannies – might never find it again.

Sadly, we leave tomorrow. The forecast is poor (snow tomorrow night), and we have been told that the Campsite at Lake Bled in Slovenia is not to be missed. It closes on October 15, so we’ll head straight there. Will spend about 10 days or so in Slovenia.

Photo of campsite bathroom entrance for Maggie!!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

La Dolce Vita

Yes, we’ve been in Italy for 3 weeks, but before I rave on about it, a bit about leaving France.

We spent 4 days in the Vercors, doing some brilliant walking. This is another stunning area where we could have spent weeks. We had our last Sunday lunch in France in the tiny local village at a wonderful restaurant. Another memorable meal.

Walking in the Vercors
We crossed into Italy in a rather dramatic fashion through the Alps at Colle dell’Agnello, 2744 metres. More amazing scenery that I won’t go on about, I think you all know what the Alps looks like. I was quite excited as this was my first true alpine crossing, no boring tunnels for us.

Half in France, half in Italy

First stop in Italy was Piemonte and the associated wine regions of Barolo, Barbaresco and the Langhe in general. We hired a smart looking Lambretta scooter, thinking it would be the very thing to zip around vineyards. Wrong! First one got a flat tyre so we missed our afternoon appointment. The second one was so ratty we feared for our life and handed it back. We did our usual trick of visiting wineries and buying too much wine, then having to stand on my head to fit it all into Boris.

Beautiful Barolo Vineyards
Wine tourism in the area is well organised and the wineries are very welcoming, happy to spend time with you, open their precious wine and show you their secrets. Being a wine geek, I took more photos of vineyards and tanks and barrels. I won’t bore you with those!

From there we drove across to Verona to meet our friend Sam who is currently travelling the world thanks to a happy redundancy. We spent most of the time at Lake Garda. After spending a few days at the southern end, we escaped the tourist hordes and headed north. Did some great walking and had an ongoing scrabble contest. Sam won as usual. In fact, I blame Sam and the scrabble for not updating the blog.

Dinner at Lake Garda with Sam. This is the campsite restaurant, slumming it as you can see.
We had to leave Boris in Brescia (not far from Verona) to get a few ‘issues’ sorted out. We needed a new fridge door, a new window and a few handles needed replacing – stuff like that. Plus some boring mechanical things to be done on the blue bit. So, instead of hanging around Brescia, we decided to head for Venice by train.

We booked the world’s most expensive, but rather dull 3 star hotel - 250 euros a night (gulp)!! Venice was booked up and that was all we could manage, but it was in a brilliant location - spitting distance to San Marco and a stone’s throw from the Rialto. The Japanese and American tourists were out in their thousands, blimey we couldn’t breathe. We did the obligatory Palazzo Ducale and from then on avoided tourist areas.  This meant I saw bits of Venice I hadn’t seen before and we had a grand time touring the back streets, finding wonderful but empty churches, and of course getting lost.

Dear Old Venice
I’d read recently in a magazine that a grower had started a vineyard in Venice. How could we resist a challenge to find a vineyard? So we took the ferry to the island of Mazzorbo (right next to Burano) and there it was, a tiny walled vineyard growing the ancient white wine variety of Dorona. No wine has been made yet, so sadly we didn’t get to taste it.

Venice doesn’t change. It just looked a bit more faded than my last visit 5 years ago. Of course we managed to eat very well with rabbit and porcini featuring strongly. It’s porcini season in Italy and we are being little piggies, sniffing them out wherever we can.

We were so happy to get Boris back and settle back in our little home. We drove directly north to the Trentino area and camped in a cloud (I think it may be No.9). It’s cold up here and the mornings definitely have an autumnal chill. We’ll do some hill walking here and head even further north into the Dolomites, maybe even Austria, before heading to Slovenia and Croatia. Don’t panic – we’ll be back in Italy in early November.

Today we went into Trento with it’s magnificent Duomo where the Council of Trent met in 1545 to be see what could be done about the pesky Protestants and their Reformation. I wish I’d kept count of the number of Cathedrals and churches we’ve done- must be hundreds!

So once again we’ve overindulged and are back on our water and veg diet.