Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Through the keyhole.....

From John:

Dobar dan!
Greetings from the sunny Republic of Hrvatska! Never heard of it? Neither had we until we got here. Check out Google Earth or your Times World Atlas now. Or take a look through the keyhole with John & Gayle:
It's a lovely country, with a rocky tree-covered coastline ,hundreds of islands and limestone mountains. Many of the natives speak Italian as well as their own language, and their neighbours speak exactly the same language but use Cyrillic script and give it a different name. Marco Polo allegedly was born on one of the islands. It's a popular tourist spot for Germans and Italians and anyone who wants to go on a sailing holiday, and in April the average weather conditions are sunny with an average temperature of 20°C. They are so good at football that they make up half the Australian national team too. Well, okay, not so great, but they're better than England. Er....oh well, you know what I mean. Have you guessed where we are yet? If so, please put your answers on a postcard and send it to us Poste Restante, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I can't believe it's over a month since I last wrote. We were waiting for cheaper internet rates, but it costs 4 ice creams an hour here (in Italy the rate was 2 ice creams an hour). In one place the rate was 12 ice creams. As you will appreciate the life of the World Traveller is often full of compromises, decisions about whether to travel lavishly for a short time or economically for a longer time, so when it came to ice creams or internet the old World Wide Web got the heave ho. We have come across a strange paradox here in that we can keep within our notional budget, provided we don't actually travel anywhere - buses are as pricey as England. What to do? We sat on the beach and thought about that one for a few days.

I last wrote in Florence from where we visited the Tuscan towns of Lucca, Siena and, our favourite, San Gimignano. Our attempts to see some of Florence's world famous renaissance artworks were thwarted by long queues of Italian schoolchildren, Americans, and Japanese. However, I did go to a Cezanne exhibition, and we both visited a joint exhibition of Chagall and Miró. We camped at a peaceful campsite overlooking Florence and enjoyed good weather until it snowed. The snow dusted the surrounding hills and left us a little damp, but didn't prevent the daily trip to the Gelateria. We found a wonderful ice cream shop frequented by locals - 36 flavours to choose from and the stuff paddled into the cornet as it should be. Also met an English couple campervanning who wined us and dined us in their mobile home - all rather pleasant and civilised. Not many tents around - mostly campervans from Germany, Netherlands and France plus the odd Briton.

From Florence we headed out to Ravenna on the coast south of Venice. Ravenna was at some point part of the Byzantine empire, after the Romans fumbled the ball and lost out to the Barbarians. Their lasting legacy is a series of church buildings full of wonderful mosaics - apparently the best byzantium mosaics outside of Istanbul. All very impressive, but we had to compete again with bus loads of bored-looking schoolchildren. Don't they ever stay in the classroom? We couldn't get into the one cheap hotel and had to move up market - which meant cooking our tea in the room with the TV on (`Chi vuore millianario? ' was on, as always.....). Ahh, the thrills, and when I'm cooking, the spills!

Italy still has a comprehensive rail network, and despite being taught the words for delayed and cancelled by our friend in Monza, the trains were very reliable. We took a 3-train journey all the way around the coast to Trieste, which sits on the border with Slovenia. It's not really an Italian town - it was Austria's main port for 3 centuries or more up until the end of the First World War, when Italy were given control. After WWII the Allies hung around until 1954 and gave it back to Italy simply so that communist Yugoslavia couldn't have it. The city is full of tall Austrian buildings, beer halls and brockwurst, and when we arrived it also had an Austrian climate. The Bora was in full flow. We stayed here with Roberto, an Italian we contacted through The Hospitality Club. The club exists to encourage people to meet others by hosting them or showing them around. Roberto did both, at short notice, and was extremely kind.

From here we took a little bus to The Sunny Republic of Hrvatska, and the Istrian peninsular. We arrived at the end of the day and had to slog our way out to a great campsite on the edge of Rovinj, a small pretty town. The campsite was virtually empty, the weather was wonderful, the azure water cristal clear, and to our relief everyone understood our pidgeon Croatian. In fact, although all the locals speak Italian and German, they also speak English well - of course, their main business is tourism. Because it was early April the tourist season is only beginning to crank up and this suits us fine. Everywhere there are renovations and building work going on in anticipation of the crowds in July. Croatia's tourist industry is well-developed and the standard of services is very high. The weather has been perfect and we are beginning to doubt that it could ever rain here. We have slowly worked our way down the coast, taking the ferries whenever possible, and limited our stops to a few places in order to cut down on the travelling costs - it took us a week in Rovinj to work that one out. In the end, this has made it more relaxing for us, and we've had to be selective about where we stay.
From Rovinj we went to the island of Cres where we camped at another large green and peaceful site with wonderful facilities right on the coast, along from Cres town. We've enjoyed great sunsets and a full moonrise that looked like a giant cheesecake floating in the night sky. Our stargazing has also brought us two shooting stars. The campsites are shaded with tall pines and stunted olive and fig trees and they're full of birds. The only drawback is the ground is rock hard!
Over Easter we visited Valun, a small fishing port three hour's walk from Cres. We walked through the dusty dry olive terraces on a scorching hot day, and were tempted off the high path by a signpost to a tiny swimming cove. After a long break we climbed back up and continued along the track. The sun took it's toll and I struggled to keep up with Gayle. I only manged to move quickly when we heard a lizard beside the path and both turned to see it was in fact a metre long snake. From then on I flinched everytime there was a rustle along the way. The afternoon wore on and we seemed no nearer to Valun, I felt weary and parched and we had almost run out of water. A group of boys flew past us on mountain bikes oblivious to the heat. And just as my vision was getting hazy, and my steps were faltering there appeared the Miracle of the Water. There, in the middle of the track was a Coke bottle filled with water, refracting the sunlight and glinting like a precious stone. I laughed aloud and fell upon it like a crazed man. The water was cold! We drank it in two gulps and finally reached Valun, a five hour walk from Cres, at the day's end.
We took a room in a house, which is one of the cheapest way to stay in Croatia. The owners let us cook on the terrace with our camping stove, and here we met an Austrian couple - a jolly friendly man whom we nicknamed Frasier (for it was he) and his miserable and silent girlfriend. The room was very comfortable and the bed was so soft. We showered and rested and listened to the mass held in the village church next door. It was Good Friday, and during the service the congregation left the church and followed the priest, singing, as he bore the cross around the small harbour front. It was dark, but the whole front was lit with flares - a wonderful sight. The next day Frasier showed us a great walk down old country lanes to another village, Lubiniče, built high on cliffs. Below it was a picturesque shale beach where we spent the day before walking back in the twilight. This was a perfect day and afterwards we realised we had taken as many photographs on this day as we had during our stay in Venice.

The ambience of these villages reminds us of Scotland's islands, but with great weather - I guess like most Mediterranean islands. There are boats everywhere, men pottering about with them, repairing, fishing, pootling about at all times of day and night.We sailed from Mali Lošinj on the tip of Cres to the port of Zadar, our first big town. Two nights was enough before we took the coastal bus down to Trogir, a small town outside Split, where we took a room. Trogir and Split old town are both UNESCO World Heritage sites, and fairly touristy as a result. They both form atmospheric and decorative backdrops to stylish and trendy bars and cafes, and are essential stops for the tour buses. But come evening, Trogir was a quiet sleepy little place. We took another ferry from Split to Korčula island and camped on the mainland opposite for a few days before taking a room here in Korčula old town. The town is an old walled town on a hilly peninsular and the locals claim that Marco Polo was born here before he went to Venice. Of course there is no proof for this, although the town was under Venetian control for years, but it's a great story for us dilly-dallying before we embark on the Silk Road. By chance, the room we are staying in backs on to the alleged house of Polo, which is currently being renovated as a museum. Perfect. Today we sail for Dubrovnik, our last stop in Croatia before we head north though Bosnia to Hungary. We're both looking forward to meeting Isabell and Bill in Budapest in 3 weeks time, and looking forward to eating something other than the ubiquitous pizza and pasta. However, we are going to miss the sea................

Bog! (as they say here)