Friday, December 14, 2018

Paris and Home

21 October, Ibis Hotel, Gentilly, Paris

Except for some early confusion in Nuremburg caused by our train arriving at the assigned platform empty, when it was a through train from Munich, all went fairly smoothly. Seems there was some diversion of trains that resulted in our train being replaced by one originating in Nuremburg. It is interesting that the confusion on the platform was equally shared by German speakers and the rest of us. We put it down to the fact that nobody can understand railway announcements, even when given in their own language.

Our arrival station was Gare de l’Est, a very busy station at the best of times, but it was really hectic as we arrived. We had researched the infamous Paris Metro ticket machines and were ready for all eventualities, except for the fact that their credit card service wasn’t functioning. Forced now to stand in a queue at the only service window, we encountered the usual frustrations, with those ahead of us taking forever to complete a simple transaction. Sounds a lot like old folks whinging, but, really, how hard is it to know what you want before you get to the window? We can even do it in circumstances where we don’t speak the language. For us, the only delay was 10 seconds because the service lady didn’t hit the right key for us to pay by card. We were done and dusted inside 60 seconds.

Delayed by our trials at the station, we had to find our hotel in the dark. The Ibis Gentilly is right on the edge of central Paris, perhaps better described as “in the sticks”. Those who have driven in Paris will know the Peripherique, Paris’ Ring Road. We are just outside it. In fact it is just outside our window, at eye level. We wandered about for a while in dark and somewhat unsafe streets, but finally found the Ibis. We have stayed at a few Ibis hotels in big cities and they have been, uniformly, what we’d paid for. In Paris the rule holds, with clean, small rooms, limited facilities reasonable service and very average locations.

Our visit to Paris had nothing to do with seeing the sights. We were here to complete our pilgrimage to the locations visited by William Armstrong during his leave in June 1918, just before he was killed at Mont St Quentin. We were also here to find the grave of Janita’s grandmother’s cousin, Thomas Chadwick, who was shot down over Paris in September 1943.

With the help of the sexton at Clichy cemetery, we were able to find the Commonwealth War Graves section and following a stone by stone search, found Thomas’ grave. He was an Airforce sergeant, but nearby were Canadian and British graves recording the same date. Thomas, the Canadians and the British must have been operating as a composite crew.

The shooting down of Thomas Chadwick’s bomber in September 1943 was probably a notable event at the time. The plane crashed in flames on the edge of a square that today is the back entry to the Louvre. There is a plaque remembering the event on a building just around the corner from the square.

We know from other family who have visited Paris and sought out memorials to Thomas Chadwick, that there is also a plaque in the church of Notre Dame des Victoires, recording the incident. We found the church, but on entering were confronted by memorial plaques covering almost every available surface, 32000 in total. We spent quite some time searching, but to no avail.

A big part of William Armstrong’s leave in Paris was devoted to entertainment. He visited the Olympia Theatre and the Folies Bergere. Today we found both venues, though they have probably changed a lot since 1918.

We had decided not to play tourist in Paris, but there was one museum that was a must for us, the Musee D’Orsay, home to one of the world’s best collections of 19th and early 20th century art. Even though one of the main galleries was being renovated, we still had our fill of our usual favourites, Monet, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Cezanne and Renoir, enough to keep us occupied for a couple of hours.

26 October, Home

A long couple of days’ journey home via Guangzhou has left us a little weary and jet-lagged. We had a 15 hour stopover in Guangzhou, made easier by the airline-provided accommodation in the Airport Hotel. Aside from some serious delays in getting a temporary visa authorised and confusion caused by some new immigration processes, our stay in Guangzhou went well. We were able to get a good five or six hours sleep. However, having arrived at 6:00 am, our sleep was during the day, adding to body time clock confusion that will probably take us a few days to recalibrate.

This trip was our first long trip to Europe in a decade. We have generally used motorhomes to get about in the past, but Europe has just become too crowded to allow for that style of travel any more. We opted for a few, week-long stays in small towns and villages within striking distance of larger cities, combined with train and bus journeys through the Balkans and northern Italy. Our accommodation was predominantly in Airbnb apartments, with the odd hotel stay here and there, mainly just before or after flights. We found driving into cities in both the UK and Germany fairly easy to manage. Parking was generally cheap or even free and Park and Ride facilities, where they were available, took a lot of the hassle out of travelling into larger cities.

Car hire in Europe and the UK is very cheap in comparison to Australian rates. Fuel prices are lot higher, but using small efficient vehicles helped us limit these costs on our budget. We found bus travel extremely cheap, but the usual delays associated with bus travel did cause us some minor difficulties. Train travel was a little more reliable, but far more expensive.

We are planning a return trip to Europe early next year via Southern Africa. Given our experiences on this trip, we will probably hire cars and settle ourselves in country towns again.


Southern Germany

7 October, Airbnb, Aretsried, Germany  

From Turin we took the train into Augsburg, with changes at Verona and Munich. Nine out of ten for the Italians. Platform allocations were left to the last couple of minutes before departure, which had us pacing Torino station anxiously, but our train left on time and arrived on schedule. From Verona, we were in the hands of DB Rail. For hundreds of kms we crossed through the mountain passes from Italy into Germany, goggle-eyed, on a perfect day with clear blue skies and chocolate box scenes at every turn. It was here things got a little bit shaky. We had to make a 15 minute change in Munich. A bit tight, but, hey, this is Germany.  

The mountain scenery distracted us from the fact that the train was falling behind schedule, first five minutes then, as we got closer to Munich, eleven minutes. Getting off a train to make a connection in less than five minutes might not seem too much of a problem, but these trains are more than 500m long and the platforms are crowded. To cut a long story short, a multitude of errors resulted in our connection being 10 minutes late, so, hot and sweaty after we’d sprinted the length of two platforms, all was well. In Japan, someone would have fallen on their sword!

We’d booked a small car from Sixt Car Rentals, just outside Augsburg Station entrance, but as we were a bit late, the small cars had all gone and we were upgraded to an automatic BMW. Can be lucky some days! Stopping at a Lidl supermarket on the way to the Airbnb, 20 kms from Augsburg, we picked up enough for the evening meal, thinking we’d do a proper shop the next day, Sunday.

Sundays in this part of Germany are a little like they were at home when we were in our teens, when nothing opened. Here, not a single supermarket, even the big chains, even in the cities, opens its doors on the day of rest. Best we could do tonight was a can of soup from a service station, augmented with some pumpkin bought at a road-side farm stall.

The upside of the closed shops was plenty of free parking for our flash hire car and fewer people on the streets. Augsburg was first settled by the Romans in around 15BC. It prospered throughout the Middle Ages as a major trading city. Land-locked as it was, it had the advantage of being situated on an old Roman Road through the Dolomites into northern Italy and beyond. Very little, if any, of the original Medieval City remains and that which does has been significantly rebuilt over the centuries, the latest rebirth being courtesy of US and British bombing during WWII.

One of the wealthy merchant families, the Fuggers is still in business today. Part of their legacy to the city is the Fuggerei, an estate of houses for the city’s poor. Originally constructed in the 1580s, and restored and rebuilt in the original style, following near total destruction during the war, the complex claims to be the oldest social settlement in the world. Today, elderly citizens of Augsburg are housed in 140 apartments where they pay just .88 euro cents a year rent plus some minor city service charges.

8 October, Artiesreid

We gave ourselves a day off today, the first this trip and a good thing too. Well into our second bout of an unpleasant viral infection that has caused us to bark like dogs, we figured it might be wise to have a break and see if nature could overcome what is really a horrid complaint. At this point, late in the day, we are still not 100% but feel better for the rest.

From our bunker, a nice, but totally underground apartment in the small village of Aretsried, we have had time to reflect a little on what is our first extended trip to Europe in 10 years, although we did flit through the Baltic states and Poland a few years back. While Europe is familiar and comfortable to travel in, there are some things that annoy us.

Ten Things We Hate About Europe

1.       Paying to pee. Really? In some of the world’s wealthiest countries, we have to pay to PEE!

2.       No tongs. Yep those things people use to pick up or turn over food. Not one of our apartments has had tongs.

3.       Vege peelers. On the same theme as 2. It isn’t a new invention, but again not a peeler in sight.

4.       “Over Tourism.” Not our term, but one that is a serious issue in many cities. In places like Venice, Paris and Rome, locals have had enough. “No More Tourists” signs are going up all over Europe. And the Chinese haven’t arrived en masse yet!

5.       Showers. Hand-held shower heads are all very modern and trendy, but a bugger to use, particularly if the shower cubicle is so small that the door, if there is one, pinches your bum when you close it.

6.       Hotels without fridges. Now admittedly, this may well be a personal foible, but we drinkers do need a fridge.

7.       Small hotel bathrooms made smaller by the inclusion of some strange second toilet (bidet) which doesn’t flush. (N.B. Can be useful to cool beer if ice is available.)

8.       Bus stations without departure boards. Again more than a little idiosyncratic, but travelling the way we do, it is a major pain to have to run up and down platforms to find your bus. And we aren’t the only ones! Locals have the same issue.

9.       People who speak English. Silly as it might sound, we enjoy transacting everyday business in our extremely limited array of foreign languages. In modern Europe everybody seems to speak English.

10.   Traffic stopping on zebra crossings. What? Yes even in Italy, put one foot on a crossing and trucks, Vespas, cars and trams come to a dead stop. Ah... take us back to Vietnam where they would just scrape you up and drive on. The point is Europe is becoming just too sanitised. No honking horns, no yelling -maybe we miss those early travel experiences.

9 October, Aretsreid

We drove for the best part of 10 hours today just to visit Otzi, the Copper Age man found in the Alps in 1991, now lying in frozen splendour in the northern Italian city of Bolzano. We passed through Bolzano on our way from Turin to Augsburg a few days back, but the economics of staying there just didn’t wash for us so we elected to build this very long 600km round trip into our itinerary instead. Distances of this magnitude are not too much of a challenge in Australia and we had assumed that we could easily handle the trip on the super-slick German Autobahns. Good in theory, except that there were very few suitable Autobahn routes to Bolzano. To make matters worse, our early start meant heavy mist. Despite these obstacles and a few heavy road tolls, we managed to arrive in Bolzano about 11:30.

Otzi didn’t disappoint. For one he was there waiting for us, looking a little like a frozen human toffee. There was a queue to view the mummy through a very small, one or two person-size opening in the specially designed cold room that is Otzi’s new home. Having a good look at the remains of a 5000 plus years old mummy that is so life-like is an amazing experience, but we were also enthralled with the many items found with Otzi. His clothing, weapons and travelling kit were extremely well-preserved and modern forensic science is constantly re-examining these artefacts to learn more about the Copper Age.

Sadly, we couldn’t devote as much time to Otzi as we would have liked, as the long return trip loomed. The weather was perfect and the autumn Alpine scenery made the drive both ways, despite a little tiring, an extremely enjoyable one...

... until, cruising along a nice, straight section of near-perfect German single lane highway, we were side-swiped by a van that, for some reason, merged back into our lane right over the top of us. We were shaken, and more than a little stirred by this insane bit of driving. We were unhurt and, as it turned out, the hire car suffered only minor scratches, but things could have been a lot worse. The driver of the van was Romanian and full of apologies. We photographed everything we needed and headed off home. A very long day.

11 October, Aretsreid

Ducked into Munich yesterday for a quick look around. We had a late start, so by the time we popped up out of the U-Bahn it was noon. We were just in time for the famous Glockenspiel performance on Marienplatz on a very warm day. We are sure it is autumn, the leaves have changed colour and have begun falling, but it really can’t be a temperature-induced reaction.

Munich is a fairly trendy city with an interesting mix of the old and new. We had driven to an inner city Park and Ride located in the area of the Olympic Park. We found the driving easy for such a large city, with wide roads and well-regulated traffic. German drivers do like to go fast, but they are also extremely respectful of speed limits. No limits apply on the Autobahn though and the speeds some cars travel at are simply terrifying. We have been passing a line of trucks in the centre of three lanes, doing 130kph, only to be passed in the far left, fast lane, by a black or grey blur that was a BMW or Merc pushing close to 200kph. Our BMW 3 Series is speed-limited to 210kph, but we haven’t been game to stick our noses out past the middle lane.

Our scenic jaunt today was to Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein Castles. We have referred to the scenery in these alpine and mountain foothills areas as chocolate box scenes and there is probably no more accurate description. Contented cows grazing on deep green, newly-mown fields, weathered timber barns scattered here and there and alpine chalets with window boxes overflowing with flowers wait around every bend, against a background of autumnal gold, red, bronze and green trees.

12 October, Aretsreid

Last day in our Bayern (Bavarian) rural hideaway, so we headed back into Munich to spend the morning at Nymphenburg Palace. This was a good choice because the Autobahn #8 from near our apartment ran almost right into the Palace’s park. Even better, we were early enough to score a parking place right in front. Again we can’t believe our luck. We have normally left Aretsreid on our daily excursions in heavy mist that cleared to blue skies by mid-morning. Today it was perfect from the start.

Nymphenburg was built mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries as the summer residence of the Bavarian ruling family. As we learn a little about the history of a place we visit, a special character often emerges as interesting for us. In Bavaria it has been King Ludwig II. Because of his association with Neuschwanstein Castle, among others, Ludwig has been known as “Mad Ludwig”. Poor Ludwig may have been born into royalty as the son of Maximilian II, but some of the expectations of the role seemed to cause him grief. A very nice marriage was arranged for him, but at the last moment he broke it off by letter to his betrothed, saying he loved her more as a sister, the modern equivalent would be ditching a fiancĂ©e by text message. Ludwig also had a liking for extremely ornate embellishments. A number of coaches and ceremonial sleighs in the Nymphenburg Carriage Museum are testament to Ludwig’s special artistic flair.

Ludwig sat on the throne of Bavaria for two short years, before dying suddenly at the age of 41, unmarried and childless. His diaries show that he struggled with homosexual tendencies all his life. These traits didn’t wash with the Prussian-led confederation of German states after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, so Ludwig was declared insane and deposed. During an early morning walk with his doctor he is said to have committed suicide. The book is still open on how Ludwig really died. He and his doctor were found together in a pond, both with their heads above water. The doctor had been bashed and strangled to death, but it seems Ludwig just died.

The park around Nymphenburg was dressed in autumn splendour for us. We wandered off the main paths to the Amalienburg, a small hunting lodge complete with a ballroom and several sitting rooms - “glamping” in the extreme. We found the kitchen particularly interesting. Decorated in a combination of Dutch Delft and Chinese tiles, it worked fairly well on first examination, but a closer look exposed some rather shoddy tile work. The imported Chinese tiles must have come with the same sort of instructions that accompany many Chinese DIY projects today. The two panels are more than a little mixed up.

13 October. Airbnb, Ehingen am Ries

Another little Bavarian village, a whole 90kms from Aretsried, will be our home for the next week. We took a regional train from Augsburg to Nuremburg using a regional Lander Ticket. These little gems allow travel on regional DB lines after 9:00am through to 3:00am the next morning. A single ticket cost us 31 euro and this allowed another person to travel on the same ticket. Our journey today would have cost 25 euro each without the ticket. If we wished we could have travelled on to any station in Bavaria at no extra charge.

The motorway outside Nuremburg is being widened and road works at the junctions caused us and others some grief. We took a wrong exit at one point and had to retrace our steps. Once on the quieter roads, we could relax a little and enjoy the spectacular weather, although coping with our new, manual, hire car, again from Sixt, was a little stressful after our BMW experience.

We have had some great Airbnbs in the past, but this one takes the cake. We may be in the back of nowhere, but at about AUD$70 a night, we have the equivalent of a 5 star suite.

14 October, Ehingen am Reis

Sunday morning in this part of rural Germany is definitely sleep-in day. We set off about 8:30 for the village of Schechingen, to meet with Paul’s German cousins and there was hardly a car on the road.

Crescentia Bihlmaier left the village of Heuchlingen, a couple of kilometres from Schechingen, in 1863 to migrate to Australia where she married Johannes Metzger from the nearby village of Diebach.  Johannes (later John) and Crescentia (later Grace) were Paul’s great-great grandparents. Their descendants in Australia number more than 250 today.

Through the travel interests of the current generation of Bihlmaiers, connections were made with the Australian branch of the family about 10 years ago. Paul’s aunt and uncle, Mary and Pierre de Jabrun have visited the family a couple of times over this period. Over a traditional, huge German lunch, provided by one of the cousins, Anika, and husband Thommy, whom we had met in Australia, we swapped stories, enjoyed a perfect autumn day and made plans for excursions, with family members, around the area over the next couple of days.

15 October, Ehingen am Reis

The small town of Oettingen, just a few kms down the road from our current home is a well-known brewery town. However, according to our friends from yesterday’s long lunch, it is far from the best beer. Despite the town’s less than startling beer, it has a very nice old city centre with some remnants of the original town gates and a main street of restored medieval buildings.

Later in the day we returned to Schechingen to meet Anika for a guided tour of the city of Schwabisch Gmund, an extremely picturesque city. We took Anika and Thommy’s two year old son, Henry for the trip, allowing us to slip back into grandparent mode.

16 October, Ehingen am Reis

It was a long haul into Nuremburg this morning to visit the site of the Nazi Nuremburg rallies of the 1930s. The Museum of Documentation, in German, Dokumentationszentrum, is a fascinating place, situated in one of the incomplete grand buildings ordered by Hitler in his rebuilding of the Reich. Behind the museum is the Zeppelin Field, the actual location of the infamous Nuremburg Rallies. The museum detailed the rise of the Nazi party and, in great detail, the way the party built the cult of Hitlerism.

As we have found in German museums focused on the Nazi era, there is no shying away from the facts. The horrors of the holocaust and the crimes committed during WWII are presented much the same way as they are presented by those who were the victims of the war. Young Germans have learned about their country’s crimes in school now for decades.

Later, we tossed up whether to drive to one of the City’s Park and Ride stations, or just head for the centre of the city and take our chances. We elected to find the main station carpark where we will have to return our car later this week. Despite all the road works around the city, cranes and excavators everywhere, we found the carpark and were only minutes away from the old city.

When we say “old city” in German cities, we really mean rebuilt old city. The bombing damage in places like Nuremburg caused the city to be fairly much reconstructed from scratch after the war. Nevertheless, the city centre is a real picture, rebuilt or not.

To complete our visit to the city we sought out the German National Museum. We are just about over museums, so the hour or so we spent here would not be enough for most people. The place is enormous and could easily demand half a day for those not suffering from museum overload.

Back on the city parking decision; our three hours in the Central Station carpark cost us the princely sum of AUD$9. Try doing that at home folks.

17 October, Ehingen am Reis

Unwittingly, we have spent the last week or more exploring the famous Romantic Way. We thought we were just roaming around some nice old German towns. Our ignorance can be blamed on the fact that most of the material we were working from was in German, not one of our best languages. Courtesy of our cousin Werner, and partner Claudia, who showed us around Nordlingen today, we now have a good detailed map of the area and descriptions in English. Despite our poor planning, we seem to have covered most of the more important towns.

Of special note to us was the small town of Harburg which we visited this morning. Our daughter, Elizabeth is a Harburg by marriage, so we took heaps of photographs in case there was some chance of a distant claim to this magnificent property.

We visited Nordlingen over thirty years ago, but only briefly. Today we had the royal treatment with a guided tour from Claudia and Werner. The city is one of the last remaining totally-walled cities in Germany and it is possible to walk all around it for a different perspective of the city. Another viewpoint is the Daniel Tower, attached to the church. A mere 360 steps will take you to the highest point for many miles around, providing spectacular views of both the city and surrounding countryside. Seeing a place like Nordlingen with someone who lives there allowed us to explore those beautiful local sites that only a resident would know. And, yes, it was another perfect day.

18 October, Ehingen am Reis  

For some reason, every route we took today had a road works diversion in place. This is a very European thing. Because there are so many good roads to choose from, rather than have traffic driving through road works, diversions are put in place. In Germany the diverted route is marked with a yellow U and a direction arrow. This sounds simple enough. In practice, it is not. Locals are probably fine, because they have some grasp of the local geography, but those of us who are GPS dependant are easily led astray.

Our outward journey seemed simple enough on our GPS, but within a few kilometres, we were diverted through the town of Dinkelsbuhl. This was not such a disaster as it might seem as Dinkelsbuhl was on out “to visit” list for the day, another medieval gem.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber was our end destination and having found our way through the maze of U (diversion) signs to get to Dinkelsbuhl, we thought we were ok. As it turned out, what should have been about an hour’s drive took us close to two hours, even taking out the time we took to wander through beautiful Dinkelsbuhl.

The frustration vanished when we walked through the city gates of Rothenburg, with its closely-packed medieval streets, numerous city gates, market squares and an interesting cathedral built over part of the city wall. We walked the city wall which doesn’t make it all the way around the city, but still gave us many fantastic views of the old city centre.

Heading home, we carefully plotted our route to avoid the diversions we had encountered this morning. All went well, no diversions, until... for some reason the fire department closed off almost every road we needed to take to get home. But luck was on our side. As we were waved away by the fire department officers, we noticed that the truck in front of us was an Oettingen Beer truck, heading home. Oettingen is just a couple of kms from home. We were saved!

19 October, Ehingen am Reis

Our last day in Germany; tomorrow we drive to Nuremburg and take the ICE fast train to Stuttgart and then a TGV French train on to Paris. Our two weeks have allowed us to take our time to explore this interesting part of Europe. For our last day, we randomly selected a town for our last visit. Gunzenhausen, just 25 kms west, was our choice, not as spectacular as many of the other cities and towns we have visited, but a nice little town nevertheless.

Heavy fogs are starting to build in the mornings and the temperatures are dropping, we have actually needed to pull on a sweat shirt. We have an early start tomorrow for the supposed hour and a half trip into Nuremburg. Given our previous experiences driving into and around Nuremburg, we will be giving ourselves a good time buffer.

Northern Italy

Northern Italy

28 September, Airbnb, Trieste, Italy
We arrived in sunny, warm Trieste, fairly much on time, just before noon. Our last couple of trips have been with FlixBus, a fairly big operator in Europe. They have a smoothly operating website that takes payments from standard credit cards and PayPal. They also accept electronic tickets, which is a big attraction, as printing tickets on the move can be a bit of a pain.

Slovenia has some beautiful rural countryside, almost Swiss, with rolling hills that look like golf course greens and little villages with houses with steeply gabled roofs. Then, about 20 kms out of Trieste we crossed a small mountain range which must have marked the entry into the drier, Mediterranean coastal area. Suddenly, most of the green was replaced by light brown grasses and far fewer trees.

Trieste is a port city and from our window on this crystal clear afternoon, we can see the deep blue of the northern Mediterranean and the mantis-like cranes of the port.

Our apartment must surely be the biggest Airbnb in the world. Easily as big as our home in Brisbane, it sleeps five and has a kitchen that could cater for a small function.  Everything screams Italian chic.  The only drawback is the sloping, attic ceilings in the main bedroom. We foresee some minor head injuries during our stay. Just two minutes from the train station and bus terminal, supermarket on the corner and five minutes' walk to the centre of town, we are made!

We have never had too much difficulty communicating in Italian. The Italians generally are so good at using body language along with the spoken word to get a message across that all you have to do is watch as much as listen. Our problem is that having spent some time in South America recently, we tend to get our limited Italian confused with our equally limited Spanish.

29 September, Trieste
Having spent a bit of time last night exploring the Trieste transport system on the web, we were fully prepared for our planned journeys to the outer suburbs to visit Castello Miramare to the north of the city and Risiera di San Sabba to the south. While the technology used by transport systems in big cities around the world has advanced enormously in the last decade or so, some traditions still remain. The little kiosk selling magazines, cigarettes and snacks at the bus stop still sells single tickets just as they have always done. But today you can track the location of your bus on your smartphone, pay online and, in Trieste, there is also Wifi on the bus.

Castello Miramare was the home of Prince Maximilian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph. Maximillian drew what ended up being a very short straw when he accepted the offer of Napoleon III to become Emperor of Mexico in 1864. He ruled for three years before the Mexicans, who had had enough of European rule, overthrew him. He was executed in 1867.We put ourselves in the place of the average Mexican in 1864 and wondered how it was that they were expected to accept rule by an Austrian prince.

The strategic location of Trieste at the head of the Adriatic has meant that it has often been fought over and occupied. During WWII, after Italy signed an armistice with the allies, German forces occupied Trieste and surrounding areas of today’s Slovenia and Croatia. Risiera di San Sabba, an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Trieste, was established as a concentration camp to “process” Resistance fighters, political prisoners and Jews. Though it was on a much smaller scale than the mass camps in Poland and Germany, the crimes committed here were no less grievous. Today the site is a memorial to those who suffered and died here in one of the probably hundreds of similarly little known sites throughout Europe.

30 September, Trieste
Two cruise ships loomed at the quay as we rounded the corner on the short walk from our apartment towards the old city centre, but only a few hundred of the floating hordes seem to have elected to come ashore. This extremely pleasant and surprisingly small city was thus largely left to us and the locals.

We were in no rush today, so we wandered about a little, well yes, we did get a bit lost, but what a great place to do just that on another perfect day.

Eventually we found the Museo Revoltella, a mixture of city palace and modern art gallery. Built by Baron de Revoltella in the mid-19th century, the house was pure opulence! The good Baron was a great collector of fine art and his collection has been augmented by the city to create a fantastic collection of local art. We had never heard of any of the artists, but we found a lot to like in the six floors of sculpture and paintings. At just AUD$3 it was great value as well.

We found the overly-renovated Roman amphitheatre a bit so-so. The Castle San Giusto was likewise a fairly modern reconstruction, but with great views over the city and environs.

The highlight of the day was the Arch of Riccardo. In a small square, difficult to find among the winding streets of the old city, we thought this 33BC Roman monument really deserved a visit and some respect. Only in Italy. Somehow, the city fathers at some point had decided that poor old Riccardo, whoever he was, really didn’t deserve that much respect. An apartment block has been built adjacent to the arch, using one of the arch pillars to support its outer wall.

2 October, Airbnb Milano
We lucked out with the weather yesterday; it rained most of the day. The lucky bit was that we were on the bus between Trieste and Milan. By the time we arrived, just one hour late this time, the sky was clearing and the rain had stopped. This has been only our second rainy day in more than a month. On the other rainy day, we were driving most of the day as well. Today was what we have come to expect - not a cloud in the sky and a little cooler, which is good.

Many years ago we commented on leaving the subway in Cologne and being overwhelmed by the cathedral that loomed above us as we climbed the stairs. Today was just as impressive an entry onto the Piazza del Duomo. The cathedral virtually filled the sky.

The crowds in the square and lined up to enter the cathedral were not on the scale we had experienced in Dalmatia, but it was still busy, to say the least. The security on entering was extremely strict and conducted by the military. Rigorous as they were, the soldiers were extremely friendly and all was managed with good humour. No matter how often we say, “not another cathedral” we can’t resist these fantastic medieval masterpieces. They never cease to amaze us, not so much for their religious significance, but for the astounding skill and ingenuity of their designers and builders.

Along with thousands of others, we climbed to the top terraces for a closer look at the spires and the sculptures that adorned them. Looking down on the piazza, we noted that the crowd had grown significantly. What must it be like in July and August?

As we have both succumbed to a second bout of the heavy colds we brought with us to Europe over a month ago, we decided on a light day. Besides our wracking coughs were frightening small children and spooking the horses.

After a rather nice sandwich lunch at a little hole in the wall cafe, we visited the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan’s famous art gallery. By reputation, the Pinacoteca is a must-see. To be honest we were a little disappointed. Initially sponsored by Napoleon when he made Milan the capital of “his” Italy, it was established to rival the Louvre. The focus was on 14th – 16th century religious art and there was, without a doubt, a fine collection of this genre, but religious art has never been our thing.

To this point in our travels, we have been using buses, partly because train services in the Balkans were infrequent or not available at all, but also because of the extremely cheap fares. The drawback with the buses is that they can run late, sometimes very late, usually due to traffic. Tomorrow we hit the rails with a fairly high expectation of punctuality. Even in Italy trains have a good record for running on time. Then we are into Germany where, a little like Japan, being on time is a matter of pride.

Most of the Airbnbs we have stayed in on this trip have been inner city apartments. On the whole they have been extremely comfortable, even bordering on luxurious on a couple of occasions. Although we pay, on average, AUD$120 a night for city apartments, a bit less in the country, apartment stays are a great way to manage the budget on long trips such as those we mostly take. While eating out every night would be great, the dollars soon disappear, especially if a beer or wine is added into the menu. When travelling in Asia, we do eat out far more regularly, but of course costs there are much lower. Even there, though, it is good every now and then to grab something to eat in, have a shower, throw on some more comfortable gear and relax.

4 October, Airbnb, Torino (Turin), Italy
Our train trip from Milan yesterday was a minor disaster financially. We had checked our possible trains on the web and found a good cheap, but slow trip at $23 AUD. It was only a regional trip, so just picking up tickets at the station was the go. Milan station is the largest in Europe by passenger volume, but we weren’t fazed by that. Veteran Japanese train travellers, we have managed stations there with daily passenger throughputs that Milan wouldn’t manage in a month.

Over-confident as usual, we bowled up to the first ticket machine we saw and selected what we thought was our previously researched, favoured train. Once the tickets were printed we noted the price. AUD$45 each! Seems we had used the wrong machine and our regional train hadn’t come up on the menu so we had picked one leaving at almost the same time. Never mind, we had a very fast trip on one of Italy’s super-fast trains.

We are again right beside the station and in walking distance of the city centre. The Airbnb experience is still working well for us, except that this apartment is a little run-down and in a bit of a rough neighbourhood.

We travelled to the city’s outskirts today by tram to visit the House of Savoy Palace and Basilica Superga. Our usual planning was a little off as we had failed to notice that the vintage cog tramway to the top of the mountain where the palace and basilica were located only ran on the hour. Of course, we arrived 10 minutes past the hour.

We climbed to the top of the bell tower of the basilica for a spectacular view of the city below and took a guided tour of the Savoy family apartments, in Italian. Mind you we did have four pages of English description, but the guide sprouted out at least 50 times that amount of dialogue.

Our history of Italian Unification is a bit vague since we studied it well over 40 years ago, but from what we recall, the broad picture is that Italy in the 19th Century was a mixed collection of City States like Florence and Venice and for want of a better term, family feudal estates of which the House of Savoy was one. Then along came Senor Garibaldi and his small force of 1000 red-shirted revolutionaries who gradually brought the diverse states and cites under the control of the Italian Monarchy. We know it was far more complex than this, but any simplification of Italian history can only be a good thing.

Torino boasts the second-best Egyptian Museum in the world. We aren’t sure of the veracity of this claim, but it was definitely the best collection we have seen, a little too much so in fact for so late in a long day.
5 October, Torino
Last day in Italy today. Over the Alps to Germany tomorrow.

We had another disappointing visit, this time to the GAM, Turin’s gallery of Contemporary and Modern Art. Only half the Gallery was open, the second floor being closed for restoration, the floor where all the better known art was on display.

Our second outing of the day was a far more memorable experience - the National Museum of Cinema, in the fantastic Mole Antonelliana  building. Movie fan or not, everybody surely must love this place. From extensive collections of historic cinema technology, through clips from classic original European and American films, to an enormous atrium displaying movies of every imaginable genre, a full day could happily disappear in this fantastic museum.

One of the Catholic legends that we were brought up with was the Shroud of Turin. For many centuries, the shroud was claimed to be original, used to wrap Jesus after the crucifixion. More recent scientific investigation has challenged this notion to the point where the official version presented in the Turin Cathedral is that the shroud is associated with a man who was tortured and crucified. Whichever version one believes, this relic has become one of the best known in the world. While there was a special sealed room where the shroud is held, the room was empty except for a photo of a head on the shroud, yet people seemed enthralled. Not so, us.

While the weather for our stay has been perfect, our now persistent heavy colds and barking coughs have put a bit of a damper on our enjoyment. However, despite our health issues, we have loved the city.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Dalmatia and Slovenia

13 September, Airbnb, Dubrovnik, Croatia
No air-bridge for our budget flight, but we were treated to another beautiful, clear, crisp, early autumn morning as we boarded our flight to Dubrovnik. Although the English have been complaining about the heat this year, they must surely appreciate this Indian summer weather.

From the outside, Stansted looks like a fairly small terminal. It isn’t on the scale of Heathrow, but it is much bigger that it seems. It is, however, very traveller friendly, and far better organised than other, much larger European airports.

Customs in Dubrovnik was relatively painless; again a small airport, with high volume traffic and well-organised processes. Our Airbnb host was to meet us at the Main Bus station in the city. We were sceptical, because we have never managed to have a pre-arranged pick-up actually work. But against all odds, there he was, Luka, our man.

Our bus from the airport had made a stop in the centre of the old city. Thousands of tourists were massed in the small square, lined up behind guides waving numbered paddles in the air. Oh no! Our worst fear. Cruise ships! Sure enough, as we approached our stop, the Main Bus station at the harbour, there they were, lined up in their multi-storey grossness. Our host, Luka, didn’t seem too happy about the thronging crowds either. His advice was reassuring however. The boats will leave tonight and it will be quiet for a couple of days.

 It has to be said, so let’s say it now. Your average Croatian is not one of the world’s happiest souls, avoiding eye contact, grunting a begrudged greeting to our cheery hello and ignoring our attempts at thank you, which, in Croatian is easy for us, “koala,” or that’s how it sounds. We have encountered this attitude in the past throughout much of Eastern Europe and in some parts of Russia, although it must be said that it as not quite as pervasive in western Russia. Perhaps we have just been a little overwhelmed by our week in England, where everybody is so cheery that it becomes just a little too much of what we call “jolly hockey sticks” behaviour. We exclude Luka from this generalisation, of course.

Our home for the next few days is a modern apartment a few minutes’ walk from the Old City.

14 September, Dubrovnik
Most of our previous travels in Europe have been in the shoulder, or even off season. We have become accustomed to chilly weather, forests of leafless trees and quiet streets with mostly closed shops, restaurants and attractions. This trip, we are just off the top of the peak season, particularly on the Dalmatian Coast. Dubrovnik was positively drowning in tourists today. Cruise ship shore parties moved through the streets like herds of cattle, tagged with their group number and following a cheery leader waving a numbered paddle. More subtle were the electronically-tethered groups with their earpieces and chest-mounted receivers all radio-tuned to their guru. There were also a few umbrella- waving Asian group leaders, steering their highly-disciplined charges along the ancient streets of this beautiful city.

Who can begrudge the good citizens of Dubrovnik this tourism bounty? Less than a quarter of a century ago the city was under siege, its ancient city walls and narrow, medieval streets shelled and bombed, in the worst European war since the end of WWII. So, pack a stack of cash or a big credit card limit before you take to the hot, crowded streets of modern Dubrovnik, because its good citizens are out to make up for their losses.

For younger folk, there is a lot to do in the pristine waters around the city. Armadas of kayakers paddle around the beautiful rocky cliffs, jet-skis zoom hither and non and thousands of sun lovers lounge on the beaches.  The less adventurous wander the narrow streets and steep lanes and gasp at the panoramas that can be seen from the 2kms of city walls.

High summer here must be almost unbearable. It was a beautiful day today with a forecast temperature of 29C. But down amongst the white, reflective marble pavements and walls of the crowded city, the “feels like” temperature was more like 35C.

We had planned just one day for Dubrovnik itself and that was all we needed.  

15 September, Dubrovnik
An early indication of the political complexity of the Balkans was the fact that our tour today was to include six border crossings. Our bus pickup point was just a couple of minutes away from our apartment, so we were away quickly enough on what was to be a very long and somewhat confusing day. We were travelling 90 kms to the city of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, another place that had fallen victim to the horrors of the 1992-5 Homeland War.

Our guide was an extremely well-informed and articulate young woman who was very keen for her charges to gain some understanding of the history of the Balkans and of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. From what we can gather, the problems of the region started from the first time roaming Slavic tribes from the north moved into the peninsula, about 600AD. Previously, coastal ports like Dubrovnik and Split had been settled by the Ancient Greeks and then the Romans. What the Slavs bought to the region was an unsettled tribal settlement pattern that was to prove difficult enough, but added to this mix the invasion of the Ottoman Turks and, much later, the Austro-Hungarians and the stew becomes frightfully lumpy!

Today the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is really two clearly-defined geographical regions, Bosnia and Herzegovina, plus two internal republics, one Serbian Orthodox Christian and one Bosniak Muslim. The republics form a federation, but are not adjacent geographically. They are determined by the ethnic mix of an area. Simple enough so far? Wait, there is more. Bosnia and Herzegovina has three Presidents, one Bosniak Muslim, one Serbian Orthodox and one Croatian Catholic. Yes there are significant numbers of Croatians in B&H, about 20%, so they get a say as well, but not their own internal Republic. These Presidents rotate through the position.

 In Mostar, as in many other cities in the Balkans, the scars of the Homeland War, at least the physical ones, can still be seen. While most of the beautiful old town has been rebuilt, there are still bombed-out buildings everywhere and shrapnel scars on many other buildings.

We were lucky enough to be able to engage a group of young people in Mostar in an interesting conversation about how modern B&H works. To cut a very long and very frank conversation short, it doesn’t. The contrast between Croatia and B&H is stark. As soon as we crossed the border, housing standards declined dramatically, deserted factories haunted the outskirts of the towns and many houses looked deserted. Apparently B&H is experiencing about 40% unemployment and a serious population decline, as those with marketable skills emigrate to countries in Western Europe.

Despite all of this, Mostar itself is booming. Tourists throng the rebuilt streets of the Old City and marvel at the reconstructed, arched bridge over the river that divides the minaret-spiked side of the river from the cross-topped towers on the Christian side. The young people we spoke to told us that they know many people who have never crossed that bridge and never will.

On the way back through four more border check points, we stopped off at Kravica Waterfalls, nice and very popular with the locals and throngs of tourists as well, but we think we have been spoiled by our recent visit to the Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

16 September, Airbnb, Split
Five hours on the bus today, but the scenery along the Dalmatian Coast made it well worth while. We are fairly regular users of long distance bus stations, most notably in South America. Our experiences have almost universally been confusing at the best and terrifying at worst. We had high hopes of a far more organised experience in Croatia. Not to be. Seems bus stations the world over work on the principle of the more chaotic the better.

Despite the crowds of puzzled punters roaming aimlessly along the platform and not at all helpful signage, we did manage to find our bus which, with true European efficiency, departed two minutes early.

Split is a much bigger city than Dubrovnik, so we hope that the thousands of tourists corralled on the cruise boats we passed lurking in the harbour on our way into town will be a little more spread out here. We have never been fans of the notion of cruise ship-based tourism, but that is just a personal travel preference. What we do have a difficulty with is the many thousands of people these ships off-load into popular places like Dubrovnik and the hundreds of other ports around the world they visit. Locals we speak to in many of these popular destinations are also beginning to oppose the massive influx of bodies into their city.

While there is no question that the thousands of tourists delivered to their towns are a financial boon, in many places the numbers are just unmanageable. In Dubrovnik, for example, the city has now restricted the number of ships allowed to off-load passengers to two per day, in response to a recent incident where 14,000 visitors were unloaded within a few hours, physically clogging the entrance to the old city, while the hundreds of buses required to move them about blocked the narrow city streets, causing total gridlock.

We understand that local people in other popular destinations such as Venice are having the same reaction. It is impossible to imagine what will happen when the Chinese tourists we are now seeing in fairly small numbers in Europe start arriving en masse.

17 September, Split
The harbour was clear of cruise ships this morning. Those we spotted on our way into town yesterday must have skulked away in the night. This morning we were able to walk the narrow streets of the Palace of Diocletian, the original Roman town, in reasonable peace.

Split is very different in appearance from Dubrovnik. The heart of the old city is the palace itself. Around 3000 people live within its walls. Over the millennia, they and their predecessors have rebuilt the city, creating a fascinating mix of styles which reflect the major phases of the city’s history.

Much of what we see today seems to have been built using original Roman building materials. Roman temples have become Cathedrals; ancient palace portals have become the entries to medieval palaces and more modest pillars and arches grace the entry to currently occupied private houses, restaurants and public buildings. Ancient palace walls support more modest homes, probably built in the late middle ages.

The Greeks, Romans, Barbarian tribes, Venetians, Slavic tribes, Hungarians and Austrians have all had their turn at changing the character of Split. Through all this, the mercantile nature of the city has allowed it to trade on and continue to reinvent itself.

Despite previous comments about the universal chaos of bus stations, we are finding the online booking of buses extremely convenient. E-Tickets, using QR Codes on our smart phones, are accepted by many companies. So far we have been able to book our travels with companies that don’t require printed tickets. What is a bit of a shock is that some companies charge for luggage, not a lot, just a few dollars a bag. So far there have been very frequent services between our destinations and fares are very reasonable at about AUD$6-7 per hour of travel, even less on longer trips. Sadly, buses are nowhere as flash as in South America. Perhaps we were just spoilt by fully reclining seats and cabin service.

18 September, Split
The number 37 bus was just where it was supposed to be in the northern bus station in Split, 1km or so from our apartment. Even at 9:30am the walk became more of a very slow stroll in the early morning heat. We were off to visit Trogir, a well-preserved medieval old town and Solin, an outer suburb of Split, where extensive ruins of the ancient Roman town of Salona can be found.

Our trip took us through those ugly industrial suburbs that are characteristic of most of the world’s port cities, though Split’s industrial areas are in very sharp contrast to the beauty of the old city itself.

Trogir is fairly much a mini-Split. The cathedral and tower are cut-down versions of the more grand Split ones, although the main difference is the more medieval feel to the city. It is about an hour on the local bus to Trogir, but very few travellers arrive this way. Most take tours out of Split, an option we had considered, but the cost difference was enough to see us on the number 37 local bus at around AUD$8 each return to Trogir, as opposed to $60+ each for the tour. We also wanted to stop off in Solin on the way back, which turned out to be more of a hassle than we had expected.

The Roman ruins in Solin are not very well known and seem to be off most of the main tourist bus menus. We were not well prepared for our visit. We knew roughly where to get off the bus, but we weren’t sure where the entry to the site was. A quick consultation with a very hot and weary looking German couple at the bus stop put us on the right road to the entrance, which was about 2km from where we got off the bus. The temperature was in the high 20s – low 30s, but the sun was a demon! To top it off, we were short of water and for once there weren’t any shops in sight.  It might sound silly from us, coming from the sub-tropics as we do, but this Mediterranean heat is a bit of a killer. After another application of sunscreen we finally found the entrance and a water fountain.
The ruins were quite extensive and fairly well-signed and best of all, we had them fairly much to ourselves. The Romans were no fools, the hillside site they chose picked up the breezes from the sea below and, as long as there was some shade, it was a reasonably pleasant stroll through the ruins and the olive trees and grape vines that were interspersed with the stony tracks that, in some areas, exposed Roman cobbled streets. As with many ancient sites, it is interesting to see what those who followed the original builders did with the ruins they came across. Christian occupiers built churches with the same stones their pagan predecessors had used. Even today, houses that border the original Roman site have been constructed using rubble from the ancient ruins. The best-preserved ruins were those of the old amphitheatre at the lower level of the old city site where the oval-shaped arena was fairly intact, as were the arches that would have held up the higher levels of seating.

Dreading the hot climb back up the hill to the site entrance and the long haul back to our bus stop, we explored a little bush path behind the amphitheatre that brought us out to a short stretch of two lane, un-crossable  freeway. All was not lost. We spied an underpass that led us to a bus stop on a service road, saving us a 3km walk in the blistering sun.

It will be a civilised start tomorrow to catch the 10:15am bus to Zadar, our last stop on the Dalmatian coast.

19 September, Airbnb, Zadar
Packed bus today for the 2hr 30mins trip to Zadar. Nevertheless, it was a very comfortable trip on a super smooth motorway. Many of the legs of our journey through Croatia have not been served by regular train services. Though we prefer train travel where possible, the cost difference in these parts is prohibitive. A bus trip like ours today cost around AUD$15 each and the buses leave every hour or so. Trains for a similar distance are around AUD$50 or more and the frequency is down to a couple of trains a day.

Bus travel is not for those who lump heaps of luggage about with them. The companies here charge for extra baggage above a 20kg limit. Some even charge a small amount for any bags stowed under the bus. Bus stations are often crowded places where you don’t want to be struggling between parked and moving buses dragging a couple of trundle bags.

Longer trips, more than a few hours, can be a bit of a bladder challenge. In South America, the buses have good, generally clean toilets. Here, longer trips do include the odd comfort stop, but they are usually only 5 minutes, just enough for a quick fag for the frequently puffing Croatians, more on this later, and a quick dash to the, usually, pay,( two to five kuna) loos.

While the towns and cities of Croatia are amazing, with interesting histories and great architecture, the countryside of the Dalmatian coast is less than inspiring, with stony hills covered in stunted vegetation, peppered every now and then with struggling olive plantations or vineyards. However, the deep blue waters of the Adriatic and the sunshine surely compensate. It was surprising to find that the coast line is almost continuously built up. Although Croatia has a population of just over four million, smaller than New Zealand, the number of condos and holiday homes crowding up the coastal slopes could easily accommodate twice the local population and there are enough boats moored in the hundreds of marinas along the coast to evacuate Dunkirk a hundred times over.        

But back to the frequently puffing Croatians. The number of smokers here is just staggering. We have noticed the same sort of plain packaging with dramatic and graphic photographs of cancer sufferers as we have at home, but it isn’t having the same impact. School kids light up on the footpath outside their schools. Twenty-somethings roll their own in street-side cafes, where smoking is still allowed and most older folk seem to be smokers too. A contributing factor may well be the cost of cigarettes. A pack of 30 is just AUD$6!

20 September, Zadar
We have settled into a routine, staying three days in a city, one to arrive and get sorted and oriented, one day to see the local sights and a side trip for the third.

Our main reason for coming to Zadar was the city’s proximity to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. We had investigated a full day tour for around AUD$100 each, but then we came upon the Elegance Tours no-frills option. This company has hit on a niche market aimed at those who don’t want the fully-guided tour, which may well provide a guide and some, hopefully, well-informed commentary on the area and those who don’t want to negotiate the local bus network to make the trip to the park.

Our trip was just what those who paid the AUD$100 got, but without the guide. We paid under half the price of the guided tours and got fairly much the same thing. We met at the company office in the city and walked to the nice air-conditioned, 15 seater bus for the two hour drive to the Park. We were given good advice on how best to see the park and set loose for six hours to do our own thing.

The park is large and a little crowded, but we understand it is much worse in peak season. The entry fee of AUD$35, not included in the $100 option either, included a bus ride through some of the less scenic areas and a quiet, electric boat trip along the lakes. It was a mild, 20C day and most of the walk around the lakes was in the shade of the birch and pine forests. We probably covered 10 to 12 kms, but at a very sedate pace as the ever-present tour groups still managed to clog the paths, waving their selfie-sticks and posing with their group while the rest of us waited patiently on the narrow boardwalks behind them.

21 September, Zadar
We had never heard of Zadar until we started to do some research on Croatia. The city is a real find, small enough to be easily manageable on foot, yet far enough away from the cruise liner routes to be not too crowded. The city’s narrow medieval and even ancient streets are lined with coffee shops and restaurants for those who wish to join the locals for the seemingly all day drinking and talking-fests that occupy the lives of many of those who live on the beautiful Dalmatian coast.

The Croatians have a real knack for combining building styles from the many cultures that have dominated their region over the past 2000 years or more. The Romanesque church of St Donatus is a prime example. While extremely Roman in external appearance, it was actually originally built around 950AD, using materials scrounged from the ancient Roman Forum, on the original pavement. Inside the church, stone blocks bearing Roman inscriptions hold up more modern pillars. The external walls are also built on a base of fallen sections of fluted ancient Roman pillars. The structure has been modified by the Ottomans, Venetians and, more recently, by European builders in the early 20th century. To complete the long history of modernization, a computerised light and sound display runs in the church every night.

We usually visit archaeological museums in places like this and to be honest they get to be a bit same old, same old. The Zadar Archaeological museum is a significant exception. Sure, it has the same old stuff, but with a well-sequenced and extremely well-written commentary. They even go to the trouble of providing translations of the Roman inscriptions on the many large and small artefacts on display. To top it all off, everything is linked to the city of Zadar and surrounds.

22 September, Airbnb, Zagreb
Leaving our apartment in Zadar was a bit sad. It’s the best Airbnb we have had on this trip, a real “don’t judge a book by its cover” story. The place was an absolute gem, newly-renovated, beautifully fitted out and right in the centre of the city. Sadly for the hosts, the building looks like a run-down tenement block and the four flights of stairs and no elevator would put many people off. We loved it.

Settled into our Zagreb apartment tonight, we have done our shopping, thrown our bags on the spare bed, hung up our gear for tomorrow and cracked a couple of beers.

Our bus was 30 minutes late out of Zadar, then there was an hour-long traffic block due to road works on the motorway, so we ended up over two hours late. Luckily, our apartment is just over the road from the bus station and we were in constant communication with our host, who had the keys, so he wasn’t hanging around for all that time. The supermarket is five minutes down the road, so we have “hunted and gathered” our dinner and done a quick orientation of the neighbourhood.

Sounds like good luck doesn’t it? Not at all. It’s all down to planning, which is not difficult at all with the technology available to us today. We constantly wonder how on earth we managed 20 or 30 years ago with just paper maps.

Silly as it might sound, we can’t remember whether we have been in Zagreb before. If we have, it was over 30 years ago when the Balkan states were Yugoslavia and our memories are of depressing, dark, dismal cities and country roads, where old women carried bundles of sticks on their backs and men pushed wheel barrows, loaded with produce, along rutted roads heading to town and village markets. That was Yugoslavia in 1987. Even in 2000, neighbouring countries of Eastern Europe like Romania and Bulgaria were much the same, with horse-drawn carts and people travelling on donkeys a common sight.

24 September, Zagreb
Zagreb was a little slow to awaken yesterday, on what was a fine autumn Sunday. The area we are in is very close to the old city centre, but the view from our 11th floor perch is of rows of renovated Soviet-era housing blocks, thankfully not as depressing as they would have been in their original livery.

Our usual round of museums was easily achieved in a half day or so. Of note were the Zagreb City Museum, surprisingly large and informative, the Archaeological Museum, with its excellent Egyptian collection and best of all, the Images of War Photographic Museum. We have become interested in the complex history of the Balkans and in particular the wars of the 1990s. This small exhibition of, often graphic, war photographs is a moving condemnation of the almost tribal infighting that bought misery and tragedy to this region.

We were awoken this morning by howling winds at 4:00am and shuddered at the thought of following through on our plans to bus it out to the small city of Varazdin, with its well-preserved, medieval Old City. After a miserable start, the skies cleared and by the time we reached our destination, it was sunny and clear.

We have constantly complained about the crowds in Dalmatia. Today we had the town to ourselves, almost. There they were, a small group of Chinese tourists, just five or six young people, but they are what we call “The Vanguard,” scouting out possible destinations for the inevitable hordes which will follow. In Australia they came from nowhere to be the largest group of incoming tourists in less than a decade.

Everything was closed in Varazdin today, Monday.  We had planned on just a few hours anyhow, so we were happy to wander the cobbled streets and small squares.

Our bus trip back to Zagreb was through beautiful, almost Swiss-like countryside. The storms overnight had cleaned up the air and visibility was almost limitless. Rolling hills, with colourful villages topping the ridges and fields flowing down into the valleys met our view at every turn. Again we wondered how four million people could inhabit so many houses. Surely we have seen enough apartment blocks and houses to accommodate many times the nation’s population.

Tomorrow we leave Croatia after almost two weeks. We can’t help but feel great sympathy for the Croatians in their struggle to maintain their national identity in the face of the tensions in the Balkans, not just in recent history, but over the centuries. We have only heard one side of the story, but the arguments are cogent and credible.

Visitors to Croatia shouldn’t expect a uniformly open and warm welcome. There is a certain gruffness in the national character that many outsiders may find abrasive. This is merely our impression and doesn’t apply to all.

27 September, Airbnb, Ljubljana, Slovenia 
We’ve had a busy couple of days since arriving in Ljubljana. Again, our apartment is just a short walk from the bus and train stations and ten minutes or so from the centre of the old city. Yesterday we took the local train, an hour or so, to the small village of Postojna and then walked the two kilometres to the caves of the same name, one of Slovenia’s main tourist attractions.

The temperature has dropped markedly since we left the coast, so the walk to the caves, in the autumn sun, was a welcome heart starter. We had pre-booked our tour of the caves and a visit to nearby Predjama Castle, which was probably a good idea. Even this late in the season, plenty of buses were disgorging hordes of excited tourists in the carpark as we arrived.

The caves are the largest we have visited. Twenty four kms of caves have been explored, though only about 4kms are included in the extremely well-organised tour. When we booked our visit to the caves and castle, we thought there was a free shuttle bus between the two as they are nine kilometres apart. To our dismay, the shuttle service ended in very early September and we were up for a 30 euro taxi ride to the castle and back.

Talk about the luck of the Irish! As we were asking the staff in the Ticket Office to call us a cab, we overheard a young couple at the next counter being told that they would need to take a cab as well. After a quick negotiation we agreed to share a taxi. The young guy was in fact Irish and we thought his partner was English/Indian. During the taxi ride, we got chatting about our travels and the young woman’s accent took on a fairly obvious Australian flavour. Turns out she was from Melbourne, born and bred. He was from County Wicklow where Paul’s family originated and his mother was an O’Neill. He had lived and worked in Australia as well.  

The castle was spectacular, built into a large cave opening and incorporating the hidden, natural tunnels and caverns behind it into its design. At one point in its history, it withstood a year-long siege by bringing food and water into the castle through the cave system. To rub salt into the wounds of the frustrated attackers, the besieged garrison taunted them by throwing them food from the castle walls. At one point, in shades of Monty Python, they threw a freshly-slaughtered cow down to feed their enemies.

Another beautiful, clear, but crisp morning of 4 degrees greeted us today. Ljubljana is a great city for walking, with a touch of Vienna and Prague about it, not surprising given how long it was under Hapsburg rule. We headed for the castle that overlooks the city centre, taking the funicular rather than the long, steep, walking path. Sadly, it was a disappointment. Rebuilt, rather than restored, it felt a little like a Disney Fantasy World experience rather than an historical one. An open-air restaurant in the courtyard didn’t fit with our ten-year old memories of a lovely old castle. However, we have to admit it is tourist-friendly, with well-presented exhibits and a safe climb to the tower. For the rest of the day we wandered through the mostly pedestrian-only streets, visited a couple of museums which chronicled the archaeological and social history of the city and country and lapped up the increasingly warm sunshine and central European ambience.

We have returned to the land of the Euro, but supermarket prices are on a par with the Croatian kuna and museum prices accommodate us old folk. The cost of the funicular plus castle was seven euros per person, about AUD11 and the museums were four euros, about AUD6.50.