Archive for September, 2008

Anything but slovenly

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Given that we were thinking about avoiding this country and plowing straight up north through the Dolomites to Austria, Slovenia was a revelation. Driving past the abandoned border post we immediately entered a green landscape of forested hills, bucolic farms, and villages that never threatened to break out into anything considered urban or squalid. This overload of pastoral pleasantness never let up for the entire length of the country. Now France has got a continents worth of wonders within l’hexagone, and Switzerland and Norway have large hunks of landscape where you can feel trapped inside a fairytale. But for above-averageness in all departments, I award the EuroVisionOfLoveliness award to {…drumroll…} Slovenia!

Lake Bled, Slovenia

We stopped for a friendly beer in a roadside cafe, and by early afternoon we were in the capital, Ljubljana. This is a gem of a town. Small enough to walk across in an hour yet bustling with outdoor cafes choc full of friendly, well-dressed (though karina reckons their chic is a bit dated) Slovenians drinking and chatting the evening away. Art noveau and baroque buildings line the river and inner squares, and a small castle looks out over the city from on high. We drifted around, having a beer here, a bite to eat there, though I almost poisoned myself with with a beer that turned out to taste like cordial. The next day we caught the funicular up to the castle on the hill. It had a gallery of naive jungle art and a hysterical video presentation about traditional weddings in the castle. We walked back through parkland to the centre, stopping in a palatial university library to steal some wifi and cool myself on their marble balustrades from the heat of the midday sun.

We set off north west, and from afar the mini swiss scenery of the Julian Alps and the peak of Mt Triglav rise up in anticipation. We were making for Bled, a town by an alpine lake in the dramatic corner of the country. But being a friday afternoon in summer, there were a few other people who had the same idea, and they combined with roadworks to drag us to a stand still. Our petrol was running low, and all the idling and crawling in traffic had the needle below the empty mark. We were running on fumes when we took the Bled exit from the highway, but our van got us to the petrol station in the end. With renewed vigour. We cruised down the slope to the lake.

If I set about designing a dramatic european landscape, I’d lack the art and ambition to come up with Bled. High forested bluffs and hills surround the languid deep green waters of this alpine lake. On one of the cliffs, a beautiful castle is plonked photogenicly. On a small island in the middle of the waters, a small church and bell tower looks suitably venerable. The modest town of Bled clings to one corner of the lake and has the airs of a french spa town. On the other side of the lake, a well kitted out campground nestles in a valley and it was here we spent a few days. The sun shone and under blue skies I swam in the deep cool waters of the lake while karina sunbaked on the shore. Later, we hired a row boat and explored the island and church, before paddling into the middle where we shed our clothes and dove off the boat. As we floated on our backs, the castle and mountains formed a fish-eye lens hemisphere of beauty.

The fate of the van had been playing on our minds. The further we went east and things became cheaper, the less the possible price we’d get upon selling. There was the chance of it developing further problems, and I already had doubts that an experienced dealer would offer us much for it. We decided Austria would be our best bet, both for it’s VW dealers and being the last affluent country in central europe. We ran an ad on the London Gumtree, and received 3 bites, one of which responded to my follow-ups.

From Bled, the quickest way to Austria was via a motorway tunnel. However, at the border the Slovenians stung us for 35 euro yearly motorway sticker for driving 10kms of tarmac. I’ll miss Slovenia, it’s beautiful green landscapes, it’s friendly people, and it’s 20p supermarket pivo beer.

Al’s book review time

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

As a bonus round, I thought I’d say a few words about the books I’ve been reading whilst traveling.

The Book of Dave by Will Self

Strange yarn about some future post-flood London, where the society has based it’s religion on unearthed rantings of a cabbie named Dave. Swaps back now and then to the present day as Dave’s life falls apart. Has the fine eye for cyncism and personal bitterness that Self does well, as well as being a commentary on broader themes about London and religion. Quite enjoyed it.

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Woolfe

Have been meaning to get around to reading this one, having read his journo books and seen the atrocious film adaption, and I found it a bloody good story. Cuts quite close to the bone at times, and evokes 80’s New York like no other book. Karina read it after me and also dug it.

Istanbul by Orhan Pamluk

Fairly self indulgent memoir about his childhood in Istanbul. He waffles on for several chapters about the precise characteristics of turkish melancholy until I started feeling it myself, but his recollections about other writers and artists kept the interest level just above my tedium threshold to finish it.

The Third Chimpanzee by Jarod Diamond

Now Diamond is a bloke I think had one big idea to say, which he did very well in his Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I reckon he got it out of his system. His subsequent books have had less and less to say, only repeating his earlier arguments and rehashing those of others I’ve heard put better before. He’s just become another run of the mill popular science writer and this book didn’t teach me anything new.

Science of the Discworld 3 by Terry Pratchett (co written with two scientist mates)

In contrast, I found this book a surprisingly good science read, having bought it expecting light comedy fare. His hypothesis about the importance of narrative in human thought and development was quite compelling. Poor Terry has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers, which will be a depressing loss for fans such as myself

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Ripping yarn about escapee bank robber from Melbourne involved in the Bombay underworld, amongst other things. Supposedly based on his real life, some of the convenient plotting had the whiff of bullshit about it. No matter, as a story it’s one of the best I’ve read in a while and I recommend it to anyone. A bloke we met in bulgaria turned us on to it, but in India it seems every bookseller has 3 or 4 copies and it’s a firm backpacker favourite.

How the Dead Live by Will Self

If I thought The Book of Dave was a bitter book, this one puts it in the shade for caustic cynicism. I took a while to read this one because frankly I wasn’t in the mood for it a lot of the time during our relatively happy travels.

Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie

I’ve read a couple of Rushdie’s books, though not The Satanic Verses nor it’s sequel, The Buddha is a Big Fat Cunt. I’m finding it a bit hard to get into, mainly because the cheap photocopied paperback I bought is missing several pages.

Far Canal

Monday, September 1st, 2008

I had a chance to go to Venice years ago whilst travelling alone, but in a silly romantic gesture I decided I wouldnt go there unless it was with a lover. Now that I’m spliced with Karina, I could put it on our itenary. But I get ahead of myself.

After Bologne, we headed west through the rice and corn fields to the venerable town of Ravenna. After a bit of catherdral browsing and a beer outside the tomb of Dante Aligheri, we headed to the port about 10km out of town. This turned out to be a very long coastal drag of one club after another that seemed to go on forever, and was packed with Italians in a party mood. We parked up and wandered these beachside bars, with different styles of music coming out of each one. We had a flourescent cocktail in one and a dance in the other, then ambled up the street market to the docks where we finished the night with a beer next to the bobbing boats. On return to the van to sleep we’d aquired a parking ticket, our first, that I had no intention of paying.

As we drove north to Venice, we encountered a traffic jam of trucks that looked like it wasnt going anywhere in a hurry. So with our trusty GPS we navigated an inland route through farming country, stopping for some fresh watermelon that hit the spot. Arriving close to Venice, we veered of the highway and parked on the mainland in a longstay carpark nexty to ferry terminal.

The ferry chugged across the venetian lagoon, and with the city rising out of the waters as we approached, it looked as if we were travelling through a Titian painting. The scene had a beautiful stillness about it, not broken by the gulls crying from the sunken wooden stacks.

On arrival, we headed out into the maze of alleys canals and bridges. The quarter between the terminal and St Marco’s square was geared towards seperating the tourists from their money, though the costume masks some sold were little masterpieces. After listenening to the bells and chasing down pidgeons in the crowded square, we set off with the intention of getting lost and succeed quite effectively. By the time we’d orientated ourselves again we’d managed to turn up at the naval arsenal at the eastern fringe of the city. Wending our way back proved a challenge but by sunset we’d covered a whole lot of that strange, beautiful and unlikely city. As our boat pulled away, the clouds castling above the city became bathed in the red light of dusk, and already the memory of that day in my mind has taken on the surreal quality of a dream. (I’d like to make clear that I was not on hallucinagenics at the time)

After Venice we had a choice of heading straight north through the Dolomites to Austria, or around the coast to the east and up through Slovenia. I would have like to see the mountains, but you can’t see everything and it would have been a challenge on the van, so we arced around following the line of the coast to Trieste. Trieste, has a bit of Slovenia, a bit of Austria, and a fair slab of italy in it’s make up. After a hearty and nutritious lunch of various fried meats, we opted for a campground a few kms east of town in Muggia 50m from the Slovenian border. A relaxing couple of days followed, of riding the bikes, exploring the area including the Slovenia side, and tucking into some tasty fresh fish in a restaurant owned by a fishing co-op. Our last night in italy we sat in the little harour and witnessed a a spectacular sunset lightning storm off to the south, that threatened but never quite reached us. Driving out of Triest and over the mountains to slovenia the following day, our GPS led us one of the steepest streets we’d been up, complicated by having cobblestones, being only one lane wide, and having a fair amount of traffic trying to negotiate it. It was so steep my handbrake didn’t even hold the van, and i had to reverse several times. Finally getting to the top, I saw am articulated lorry shaping to go down it, only stopping himself from getting into a whole lot of trouble by my finger wagging. I wonder if he had the same model GPS.

What a load of Bologne

Monday, September 1st, 2008

After sunning ourselves lakeside in Lugano we followed a narrow windy road east over the Italian border and down to Lake Como, holding up a tailback of frustated cars in our wake. The drive along the Lakes western shore was exquisite, piloting through little cobblestone towns and past baroque lakeside villas, our van weaved and farted. The old-lira town of Bellagio clung on the opposite shore, bathed in the afternoon sun. This was the retreat of the worlds rich and shameless, of Berlesconi and George Clooney. Eventually we arrived in the town of Como, and hunted for a good hour in the maze of the old city trying to find a decent parking spot where we could sleep the night without a ticket. We wandered through the piazzas and covered archway streets to the lakeside for a meal. I don’t know whether the lake has risen or the town is subsiding, but a fair section of the waterfront was knee deep in lake water, forcing some shops and restaurants to close. That night we listened to a free concert of a tight band playing kind of afro-world music while sipping an overpriced Peroni, and then slept in our van on a steamy night. That night, some prick stole one of the handle grips off my bike of all things.

After Como we took what our road atlas had marked as a scenic route to Bergamo, though whoever gave it that designation must have have had an aesthetic fondness for car wrecking lots and abandoned factories. Like many other European cities that can trace their history to pre-Bananarama days, Bergamo was made up of a historic old city and a regular options-not-included city where people give the impression of going about their business. In Bergamo’s case, the historic city was perched on top of a hill surrounded by revetments and high walls, and limited parking. We had a walk through it’s medieveal lanes with a particular quickness in our step, as both of us were busting to find a toilet. After success, we actually looked at the boutique shops and delis that lined it’s streets, buying the makings of a fine sandwich. While we scoffed this down looking out over the hazy vista of the lower city and plains, we debated where to head next. We decided we’d go straight down the guts of northern Italy and follow the line ancient roman Via Emilia from Parma to Ravenna.

Avoiding Milan, that i’ve always found an ugly city, we headed out across the flat plains of the Po valley through Cremona to Parma, of ham and cheese fame. We had some interweb business to do, so our main experience of Parma was a 4 story carpark and a north african phone and internet cafe near the train station. After a long sweaty session in the nonAC phone booth like cubicles, we drove that night near a park across the river and cooked dinner. We were running low on water so I took a collapsible carrier and filled up at local trendy bar. I copped a few questioning looks as I man-handled a bulging thirty litres back through the bar, but they were lucky I didn’t take a “travellers” shower while I was at it.

The next day we headed along the the straight and congested single-lane Via Emilia, opting for a roadside deli between Parma and Emilia Reggio to try some local procuitto crudo and parmesano reggiano that went down a treat. Becheesed, we continued eastward to Modena, of Pavarotti, Balsamic vinegar and Ferrari fame. Ferrari was a 14km hike out at Maranelo, and I’d prefer to drive one than look at it. And with the fat man having aria’d his last, we opted to have a look at a balsamic producer, Karina and I being big fans of the tangy vinegar. On the edge of Modena in an unlikey looking house near a railway overpass, we found a local producer of the good stuff. Georgio, a 6 foot 5 lanky bloke with a big moustache and smile, showed us around his house and attic filled with small barrels and the lovely sweet/sour smell of the fermenting vinegar. While the process had quite a few steps, and called for taste and judgement in a 15 – 20 year cycle, it didnt seem that there was an awful lot to do except sit out in the front yard ad read the paper, which is what we’d interupted him doing. A bloody good business, but heavily controlled by modena syndicate who control and protect their monopoly. The end results were something special; dark, rich and complex, and we splashed out on a bottle for future enjoyment.

After Modena we arrived in the big city of Red Bologne, with it’s sprawling heart of covered walkways, renaissance architecture, and ubiquitous red walls. We stayed the night in a campground on the edge of town, mainly because it boasted the respite of a swimming pool, and spent the next day wandering the city transfixed by it’s sartorial splendour as each new street presented itself. That night, after a spag bog I felt complelled to order (tasty, but not incredible. there’s only so much you can do with it) in a romantic open air restaurant, they started showing a free movie, Brokeback Mountain, in the main piazza by Neptune’s fountain. Given Italian mens macho self-image and catholic upbringing, I was surprised that this story of cowboy man-love pulled a huge and appreciative crowd that filled up the whole square, but it’s possible modern Italians are more open-minded than I give them credit for. I thought Heath Ledger’s introverted cowpoke was another fine example of his acting chops, underlying what a waste of talent it was when he popped his clogs on pills. We spent another sweaty night in the van in the city centre, waking up to a cappocino and breakfast at a cafe. We decided to head for the Adriatic coast at Ravena. Stay tuned