2017 Grateful 12

I’m generally quite positive, upbeat even. Except when I’m tired. Or hungry. Or feeling ill. Then I can’t stand to be with myself let alone socialise with others. I retreat inwards. Any attempt to boost my mood or chivvy me back to normalcy is met with an almost childlike churlishness that borders on embarrassing. My usually low tolerance level sinks even further to the point where I’m better off left alone. I’ve been around myself long enough to see the signs and know when to hole up, recognising the valour in a strategic retreat to my world, population of one. But sometimes, such a retreat isn’t possible.

In Croatia a few weeks back (where has the time gone?) I’d spent a lovely morning and early afternoon on the olive oil trail. But as time went on, I realised, albeit too late, that tasting olive oil on an empty stomach was just asking for trouble. I was driving. I was hungry. And had I anything at all in my stomach, I would have welcomed a good throw-up. As I battled with my dry heaves all I could think about was food.

We made a beeline for Rovinj, a fishing port on the west coast of the Istrian peninsula. We arrived. We ate. And I returned to the land of civility and something approaching niceness.

I knew nothing of where we were. Himself had heard vague rumblings from friends about how beautiful it was. On leaving Vodnjan he’d done his map thing and discovered that it wasn’t all that far away. It’s a lovely old town, everything packed in around the port, narrowing upwards, pyramid style, to the top of a hill where the Church of St Euphemia stands sentry. Fourteen islands lie off the coast, making me think wistfully of winning the lottery so I could buy one as a permanent retreat.

The church was built on the remains of earlier churches back in 1736. It is home to the relics of St Euphemia preserved in a sarcophagus that dates back to the sixth century but apparently remodelled in the 1400s. There’s a story behind it:

[St Euphemia] died on September 16, 304. Christians from Chalcedon [a town in Asia Minor] preserved the body of the martyr until 620 when the town was captured by the Persians. The sarcophagus with the body of St. Euphemia was then transferred to Constantinople, and placed in a magnificent church which was built in her honour by Tsar Constantine. In 800 the Iconoclasts (icon-slashers) came to power, and the Christians were forced to remove the relics of St. Euphemia. […] People say that a marble sarcophagus came floating in the sea to the coast of Rovinj after a big storm at dawn of July 13, 800. It is said that many people of Rovinj tried to haul the sarcophagus to the Church of Saint George, but no one succeeded. Finally, answering to St. Euphemia’s call, a small boy with two little cows managed to haul the sarcophagus up the hill.

Some of the works of art inside date back as far as the fifteenth century with the bell tower modelled on that of St Mark’s in Venice dating to the mid-1600s. It’s a lovely piece of architecture and a beautiful church. What makes it special though, is not St Euphemia but the welcome that is posted in seven languages inside.

You have set aside your usual work. You have left your homes and have set off on a journey filled with the desire to get close to nature, to enjoy your holiday and to relax. We hope that your stay in our country will be serene and restful and do you good.

It continues but gets a little tangled in translation. But what a welcome! A far cry from the closed doors of some churches. And given the furore that broke out in a village in Hungary earlier this week on the subject of welcoming visitors, it is worth thinking about.

As we wandered back down through the cobbled streets, we came across a plethora of artisan workshops, one more interesting than the next. Oh to win that lottery. I could have done serious damage to a bank account, if I had one worth damaging. The place was awash with tourists and the locals were capitalising on the trade. Fair play to them.

We didn’t do much other than wander around. I was enjoying being human again. When we go back – and we will – I’d like to see the Brijuni Islands from the Monkodonja Hill Fort. Isn’t it great to have the option, to have Croatia so close that I could take a notion to get into the car and drive over. And just do it, without have to worry about travel bans or border control, or whether I’d be welcome. For that sort of freedom to travel, I am truly grateful.

 

 

On the olive oil trail in Istria

Years ago, when I was of drinking age, we’d go out on the town for the night. Invariably, the drink would hit someone harder than the others. The rest would smugly ask: Surely you ate before you came out? ‘Tis only asking for trouble to drink on an empty stomach. Fast forward a few decades and I can say, with certainty, that one thing worse than drinking on an empty stomach is tasting olive oil on an empty stomach.

The olive oil trail has been on my bucket list for a while, ever since the S family brought me back a bottle of olive oil from Istria for my birthday. It actually had taste. I’d always been reluctant to spend money on the good stuff, knowing it would eventually end up in a frying pan, making little or no difference to my bacon and eggs. But this stuff was really tasty. So, in Croatia recently, and in Istria to boot, the olive trail beckoned.

We headed towards the town of Vodnjan, the hub of the Istrian olive oil region. On our way in, we spotted a sign for Oio Vivo. Curious as to what these olives were vergin’ on, we stopped for a look. Inside the tasting house, the lovely Branca (she who  learned her excellent English from watching American TV programmes) told us everything we never knew we needed to know about the process.

I didn’t know, for instance, that olive trees grow better in rocky ground. Or that they take 3-4 years to bear fruit. Or that they come in male and female form. Or that machines are rapidly taking the place of people when it comes to picking. Okay, that one was obvious but what I’d never factored in to the cost of the oil was the money it takes to feed all these labourers. In this 56-hectare grove, the company Oleum Maris has carefully planted some 15,000 trees on land that was once devastated by fire. Operating since 2005, it is the largest olive grove in southern Istria. Olive trees come in many varieties, just grapevines: Busa, Istrian bjelica, Rosignola, Zizolera, Busa Puntosa (all native) and Leccino, and Pendolino (from Italy) – not that I could tell one from the other on the day that was in it, but I’m sure I could, with practice.

Branca gave us thimble-sized tastes of their five oils, explaining the various tastes and textures. She used words like bitter, spicy, and fruity and spoke with authority about blends and purities. When I recovered from the shock of actually being able to taste the difference in the oils (what a philistine I am), I was hooked. I was disappointed that we didn’t get the home-baked bread and prosciutto but then again, this was my first olive tasting and I could be forgiven for not knowing any better.

I was very impressed that Oio Vivo uses colour to differentiate the different properties of their oils (greens for fruity, pinks for spicy and browns for bitter) and that their labels are also in braille. That’s progressive. And of course we bought, or rather the lovely Gs bought for me. And if you can read Croatian or Italian, you can download their catalogue for some helpful tips about what oils enhance which foods. Me, I’ll have to go from memory.

Very pleased with ourselves for this little discovery, we headed on to Vodnjan. The town square is surrounded by some pretty impressive buildings including the Bradamante Palace with its decorated façade.

We wandered through the cobblestone streets and narrow passageways, heading towards the church of St Blaise, reportedly the biggest church in Istria. Weirdly,

[it] keeps 370 relics belonging to 250 different saints. In addition to one of the thorns from Jesus’ crown, fragment of the Holy Virgin’s veil, particle of Jesus’ Cross and many others, a special attraction are the desiccated remains of saints whose bodies or body parts have been completely preserved: St. Sebastian, St. Barbara, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Leon Bembo, St. Giovanni Olini and St. Nicolosa Bursa.

I did some work a while back on a book by the wonderful Rosikon Press Publishing House in Warsaw which told me all I ever needed to know, and more, about Christ’s Relics. [It’s a lovely book, if you have anyone with a religious bent on your Christmas Shopping list.]  I wasn’t that pushed about paying to see mummified bodies. Anyway, the chap in charge of admission wasn’t the most welcoming of souls, so we left him to guard his secrets.

Strolling through the town, I was quite taken by the graffiti – partial as I am to some wall paintings. Were I ever to go back, I’d take the time to check out the frescoes in the many other churches in the town: St Margaret’s (12th century), Our Lady of Traversa  (13th century), St Kirin’s (6th century) or St Fosca’s (8-9th century). But that particular day, I had olives on my mind.

Vodnjan has many tasting rooms that see a steady trade in tourists but that wasn’t quite the experience we were after. We wanted to see the trees, to walk the grove, to hear how the oil gets into the bottle from the people who put it there. So we drove on, stopping when we saw the next billboard pointing to yet another grove – this time San Antonio.

Milenko Marjanović has been running San Antonio since 2009. He was there himself and talked us through the process. His is a much smaller and newer grove covering 14 hectares with 7,500 young trees. His oils have won all sorts of awards in international competitions in Tokyo, Milan, and New York, awards that he is rightly proud of. I was curious, so I read a review in which his oils are thus described:

…an intense limpid golden yellow colour with slight green hues. Its aroma is elegant and ample, rich in fruity hints of unripe tomato, banana and white apple, together with fragrant hints of basil and field balm. Its taste is rotund and strong, with a vegetal flavour of chicory and fresh broad beans, lettuce and celery. Bitterness and pungency are present and balanced, with evident sweetness. It would be ideal on mayonnaise, chickpea appetizers, sea bream carpaccio, ovoli mushroom salads, marinated trout, broad bean purée, fish cous cous, fried vegetables, steamed fish, soft fresh cheese, oven cookies.

Who knew that olive oil was so complicated.

He’s built a kažun in his yard – a traditional shelter used by olive pickers. He had to do something with the stones he’d cleared from the land. He told us how the walls in the region are protected by UNESCO so he had to jump through all sorts of hoops when he bought the land and decided to plant his trees. The land he bought was originally 650 parcels with some 300 km of stone walls. It’s great to see UNESCO on the ball, protecting our heritage and tradition, but as the tractor has more or less replaced the horse and ox, might  there not be a need to widen the paths and roads? One wonders.

Marjanović’s kažun

 

An original kažun on the road to Rovinj

And again, we tasted the five oils he had on offer. And I bought. But I was starting to get a little queasy. My empty stomach was started to rebel. And while I was delighted to have crossed olive oil tasting in Istria off my bucket list, I wish I’d taken the time to eat a breakfast. Be warned. Don’t go tasting on an empty stomach.

 

Powdered wigs and sunsets

Poreč, a lovely town Istrian coast of Croatia is a great spot for festivals. If you’re into electronic music, it’s the place to be. MTV Summerblast is high on the calendar for enthusiasts. There’s the Open Air festival of life with its offshore tuna fishing challenge. And Rise up Poreč, another music festival. The day we were there, we tripped across the historic festival, Giostra. Perhaps it was the weather – a balmy summer’s evening. Or maybe it was the medieval waterfront setting? Or even the glorious sunset. But to see people walking the streets in their crinoline dresses, powdered wigs, and ruffled shirts was quite surreal.

Kids were dressed as drummer boys and young ladies in waiting. The peasantry walked alongside the lords and ladies, and whole families were decked out in style. Period musicians led the way with jugglers and court jesters doing their bit to entertain the gawking masses. The long line of finery wound its way through the town square and then back down to the harbour where a makeshift amphitheatre lent seating to the masses. What followed was a 90-minute show of period drama, music, and dancing, complete with some dancing horses from Zagreb, something so impressive that it prompted me to add seeing the Lippizzaner Stallions dance the white horse ballet in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to my bucket list. The players came from all over Croatia with some travelling from Italy, too. Their enthusiasm was infectious.

It was all rather lovely, with the evening’s entertainment ending in a rather nifty fireworks display.

Back up in the main square, the stalls were out and the locals were selling their wares. Lots of blown glass on display alongside local wines and meades, pastries and meats. The dunking booth was getting a fair whack with a line of Asian tourists waiting impatiently to try their hand at dunking the village fool.

The town has an impressive food offer with plenty of cafés and restaurants catering to all sorts of tastes and inclinations. Wandering the back streets, we happened across three bunched together and himself made a beeline for the middle one. The chairs, he said, were more inviting. Whatever the reason, we struck lucky. We only wanted to sample some of the local wine but the brothers, with their inimitable charm and excellent table-side manner said they’d knock together a couple of plates of local hams and cheeses. They really get customer service in this part of the world. They kept up the banter as they passed the table, deftly handling the newcomers while attending to those who’d been sat awhile. It was their first season. Their dad, they said, didn’t do social media. No Facebook. No wifi. No website. No advertising at all really – just word of mouth. The food was excellent, the olive oil the best I would taste in the few days we were in country, and the wines weren’t bad either. If you’re in the vicinity, it’s a restaurant well worth checking out. Tradizione, Ul. Bože Milanovića, 52440, Poreč, Croatia.

And oops, I nearly forgot the sunset.

2017 Gratefuls 14 & 13

I think this is the third time this year that I’ve lumped two gratefuls into one. And not because I’m doubly grateful but because I simply couldn’t find the time to write. No. That’s an excuse. One that I wouldn’t accept from my students. We can always find the time for what’s important to us. And therein started an internal conversation that is resulting in some pretty drastic changes.

Blogging is important. I like the ritual. I like the regularity. I like sharing where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. It’s my way of keeping in touch with various people around the world who are a big part of my life; friends who have all contributed in some way to making me who I am. It’s also by way of a record for me because my memory is getting worse and it’s getting harder to keep track of things. The travel pieces, too, they’re morphing into a whole new project that should be interesting – more details later.

So, were I to practice as I preached, I could have found the time. I could have shaved a couple of hours off my already meagre 6 hours of sleep a night but as I need 8 hours of regular sleep to keep the nice button in on mode, this would’ve been dangerous. I’m already cranky, short-tempered, and low on tolerance. I could have cancelled any one of four trips I’ve taken in as many weeks – Slovenia, Croatia, Ireland, Austria – but then I might have missed out on something. I could have postponed my visitors and asked them not to come but then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of their company (whether they took pleasure in mine is another conversation entirely 🙂 )

I’ve banged on before about freelancing and those of you who are or have been in that line of work know that memories of the most recent famine push you to take on far too much in times of feast. But I’ve had to take a long, hard, look at my workload, and weigh up my rate of return on investment of my time. I could, I suppose, stop doing the free stuff, the work I can’t bring myself to charge for. I could stop offering token rates for those I know don’t have the wherewithal to pay the full price. I could stop. Full stop.

So in addition to working, travelling, and hosting, I’ve been making changes. And yes, I’m feeling a tad anxious that I’m making the wrong decisions, culling the wrong clients, and prioritising the wrong parts of my life, but someone needs to make the call. All going well, life will return to what passes for normal around the 10th of November. Until then, I can live with the madness and the mania, and be grateful that I get to pick and choose and make choices, something I’m often in danger of taking for granted.

 

 

Standing the test of time

I had Poreč on the brain. But unlike Pula, I knew why. When I was in Israel, I’d heard about the famous mosaic tiles that dated back to the Byzantine era and they’ve been on my list since. What I wasn’t prepared for was the town itself, its narrow Roman streets, its Venetian-style houses, and its lovely waterfront. The Adriatic coast is rather lovely and, dotted as it is with myriad islands, it creates (or in my case, reignites) a fancy to live in seclusion in the midst of the sea but within sight of land. The best of everything.

The town’s main attraction is the Euphrasian Basilica, home to the world-famous mosaic floors. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and listed as one of Europe’s ‘finest intact examples of Byzantine art’. It’s massive, so be ready to spend a couple of hours navigating the church, the atrium, and the baptistery. Climbing the 122 steps of the bell tower is worth the effort. The panoramic views of the town and the sea are spectacular.

The first church on the site, a bit of which is still to be seen, dates back to the fourth century. But back to the floors. The detail is incredible. To think that these tiny pieces of stone were pieced together hundreds of years ago and are still there, still together, still weathering the tests of time.

While I was walking through the place, I was thinking wow, wow, wow, it’s still standing! And they did all this without electricity. The Bishop’s Palace is now home to a museum of religious artefacts, all of them older than old, too. It’s hard in a way to get your head around the age of everything because it all looks so well.

The church itself is the last stop on what was already a tour that I can see repeating. Coming in at the top to the side of the altar, you don’t get the immediate full wow effect. For that you need to walk down the aisle and look back. Some of the original murals are still visible. The floor has been raised with the original still visible underneath. The sixth century. 1700 years ago. All without electricity or drills or every other modern convenience we have today. Mad, isn’t it?

 

I finally made it to Pula

Back when Croatia was still part of old Yugoslavia, I was inter-railing around Europe on my tod. Yugoslavia was high on my list. I took the train from France into Italy and headed to Trieste where I crossed over into Yugoslavia heading towards Ljubljana. Soldiers with guns got on the train as we crossed the border. My fellow passengers, obviously used to the commotion, started to open their suitcases and bags for inspection. The chap in the seat opposite me told me they were customs guys. I was a nervous wreck. I was young, impressionable, and completely on my own. And they had guns. Big guns. When my turn came, I was so nervous I dropped my passport. A Padre Pio relic fell out. The soldier bent to pick it up and looked at it.

Irish, he asked, with a nod to my passport.
Yes, I said.
Catholic, he asked, with a nod to the Padre.
Yes, I said, not sure whether this was good or bad as I didn’t know much about the country I’d just entered.
Good, he said. Protestants … they bring bombs.

It was the 1980s and the IRA were in the news. Something had definitely gotten lost in translation but I wasn’t about to point that out. It wouldn’t be the only time in the next few days that I’d hear similar sentiments.

I wanted to get to Pula but never made it. I was waylaid and ended up at the Yugoslav equivalent of Spring Break in a village on a lake somewhere I’ve never been able to find since. It was all a little surreal.

Last week, though, that long reckoning came at last and I got to see Pula. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I wanted to see it. I knew sod all about it and was really surprised to hear that it boasted a magnificent (if smaller) first-century amphitheater, a smaller version of the Colosseum in Rome. To see so much of the Roman era still intact in the midst of twenty-first century concrete was quite something. Did they know how to build stuff that lasts! Unfortunately, the day we were there, some film crew had it booked out so we didn’t get to see inside. I didn’t recognise the actors (quelle surprise!)  so it may well have been a scene from Game of Thrones, as Croatia is a hub for that set, apparently.

There’s other stuff in the city, too. Cobblestone streets. Interesting shopfronts. Old churches. There’s a walking tour we could have taken, which would have guided us to Roman Pula, but I’m not that into tours. I prefer to ramble and for that I need time. I wasn’t overly pushed about seeing everything in one morning as it’s a very doable drive from the new gaff and I knew I’d be back. Next time, I want to have a coffee at Cvajner, a café in what was once a bank, furnished by Tito-era furniture and decorated with local art. And in the evening, I want to see the light show from the still-operational nineteenth-century Uljanik shipyard. Designed by lighting designer (I want that job) Dean Skira, the cranes are lit in 16 000 different color schemes and light up four times each evening for about 15 minutes a go. I might even take a stroll through the series of pre-WWI tunnels (Zerostrasse) excavated to store guns and ammo. We passed signs to Banjole along the way and next time, I want to eat at Konoba Batelina  – apparently the best seafood in the ‘hood. So much to look forward to.

 

2017 Grateful 15

I have a thing about borders. I have a thing about a lot of things, like cemeteries, counting stuff, and doors, but I also have a thing about borders. That I can cross the River Shannon in Athlone, Co. Westmeath and be in another county (Co. Roscommon) but still in the same town amuses me. That I can walk over a bridge in Killaloe, Co. Clare and be in Ballina, Co. Tipperary intrigues me. And to find that I’m within spitting distance of so many borders in Hungary, amazes me. I’m like a kid a Christmas.

I know it’s not rocket science. Borders have existed for eons. They’ve always been there. Be it districts, villages, towns, cities, counties, countries, regions, continents – whatever. They change with the politics, with the wars. They’re movable beasts. And while my borders didn’t just pop up since I started spending time in the village, I feel like I’ve just discovered them.

Driving into Istanbul from the airport some years ago, I was gobsmacked to see a sign welcoming me to Europe. That was my first continental border crossing and I hadn’t even realised I’d been in Asia. My favourite crossing has to be crossing over the Arctic Circle when I was working in Alaska. I’m sure I still have the certificate somewhere. I  must dig it out. And I have a vague memory of being somewhere, where by hopping from one foot to another I changed time zones or states or countries … something huge, so huge I can’t remember.

I’ve been a regular crosser of the border between Slovakia and Hungary and less often the one between Austria and Hungary. I’m partial to the border between Serbia and Hungary and rather fond, too, of crossing into Romania. A couple of weeks ago, we crossed over into Slovenia and explored. Last week, we crossed over into Croatia (posts and pics to come). The last two are about an hour’s drive from the house. With six of the seven crossings completed, the one still on my list to do is Ukraine.

The last two have also been road trips, a joy I’ve rediscovered. I took a couple through Hungary in my early days here but then reverted to trains and planes. Yes, there’s been a couple of US trips in recent years, but they involved planes, too. There’s something about just getting into the car and going. That freedom of movement, that being able to stop wherever and whenever. It’s something I’ve taken far too much for granted. My EU passport allows me visa-free travel in the EU and indeed outside. That little purple book coupled with my green international car insurance papers are my ticket to foreign lands. I need to take more advantage of the freedoms I have and be grateful that I can up sticks tomorrow and just go. Does it get much better?

 

Hitting the spot

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years.

Some time ago, a colleague decided to take two weeks’ holiday. He told the boss that he’d be unavailable. He was going somewhere to switch off: no laptop, no smartphone, no connection to anyone other than those he was with. He wanted a break. The boss was a little piqued. Surely he could find time in the day to check his emails? And if it took an hour to answer them, was that too much to ask? My colleague needed to get with the programme. To come in line with twenty-first-century living. He needed to live up to expectations. But my colleague was adamant. He got his two weeks.

Not being part of the structured work system, some might argue that I’m on a permanent holiday. I can work from wherever I have an Internet connection. The downside is that I’m always working and rarely, if ever, am I completely offline for more than a couple of days. My choice. My lot. My decision. But summer has a way of being summer. In Ireland at the start of the season, I was basking in a cool 14 degrees when friends in Budapest were melting in 40. At breakfast one morning I noticed how everyone was in their summer gear – sundresses, shorts, t-shirts, sandals – even though it was cold and wet outside. No matter the weather, summer is summer.

I know I’m in summer mode when I start to plan everything I want to do over the three months or so from June to August. I make a list of places I want to visit, seasonal restaurants I want to try and other summer-dependent spots I want to take in. The plan being that once tried and tested, I can then take my summer visitors to enjoy them, too.

But invariably, there are some gems I discover too late, just as they’re about to close, their money made, their season over.

A friend of mine recently spent 11 days walking around the Balaton – some 244 km. She’s a natural researcher and had done her homework before turfing up to some village or other. She wanted to discover the best of what’s out there so that she could then share her finds. Two in particular are worth noting. For next year.

The lakeside village of Vonyarvashegy is on the north shore of the Balaton and is home to about 2000 people. The strand is well-tended, a lovely open spot offering access to the lake for people with disabilities. Popular with German tourists, it has a bigger-than-usual restaurant offer, perhaps the smallest of which is The Spot Grill & Bar. In its third year of operation, this little gem opens from 21 May to 10 September, offering trout, chicken, salads, and the requisite Balaton burgers. Probably tired of people dithering between ordering a burger or a langós (both summer favourites), the chef decided to join the two and instead of a burger bun, has encased the patty in a langós. Genius. The desserts, both of them, are seconds material. The tiramisu (the Italian pick-me=up) could have come from Treviso, Italy, and the cheesecake, served in a glass, is delicious. The cocktail list is decidedly upmarket with the Cosmopolitan made from cranberries – something hard to find in Hungary. Added to the excellent food, the simple décor, and the fresh feel of it all is the excellent service. Robert has it nailed – always available, never intrusive, and very helpful. The Spot could hold its own just about anywhere. Class all the way.

The much smaller village of Káptalantóti swells in size for the Sunday market, Liliomkert. Hundreds of visiting tourists and summer residents (mainly German) descend on the place, turning the village into an obstacle course and the local fields into parking lots. With everything from a jar of honey to a kitchen dresser on offer, the place is a mecca for those looking for a piece of Hungary to take home. Nestled in the heart of the Badacsony wine region, the village has several vineyards of note, my current favourite being the Sabar Borház.

The enterprising local tourist board has organised a hop-on, hop-off wine bus that leaves the village 7 times daily every two hours to visit local vineyards.  A daily ticket will set you back 1500 ft. A must for next year. This year, I settled for a stop-off at Istvándy Winery. The restaurant was booked solid, which is no wonder, considering that everything on the menu is locally sourced – even the beef, which come from the herd of grey cattle looking over the fence. The panoramic vista of the Balaton and the vineyards is stunning. And, testament to the attention this family-run business pays to its customers, those of us sprawled on picnic blankets (supplied) on the hill below the restaurant didn’t feel the slightest bit cheated. As we ate our toasted sambos (mangalica pork and trout were the two on offer that day), sipped our grape-juice fröccs (so tasty I could actually fool myself into thinking I was drinking wine), and enjoyed the view, it struck me that life couldn’t get much better.

The summer is nearly over. The cool evenings are setting in. And as the autumn raises its head over the parapet, I can enjoy my favourite time of year knowing I have a head start on what I’ll do in summer 2018.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 September 2017

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Just over the road

What is it about men and maps eh? He’s at his happiest when he’s figuring out how to get to wherever it is we’re going. And that Friday in Slovenia, he routed us through Kamnik, for little other reason than it was there, and we wanted to avoid the traffic jams around Ljubljana.

Dating back to the eleventh century, it’s right up there with Ptuj when it comes to being among the oldest towns in the country. With its winding, medieval cobblestone streets and not one but two castles, it also served the best coffee we’d had in the three days we’d been in-country.

It was Friday – and the place was dead. There were very few people around. The shops were empty, many of them closed. It was as if everyone was at a wedding that we hadn’t been invited to. With the main square undergoing major cosmetic surgery, we escaped to the relative quiet of the Church of St Jacob. Its plain exterior didn’t even hint at the magnificence inside.

I was particularly taken with one of the most human-like paintings I’ve seen of Jesus – perhaps with Joseph or maybe even with Jacob. I’m not sure. It’s next door to the Franciscan Monastery, home to an amazing library with 10 000+ books printed before the end of the 18th century…. and I missed it. I didn’t know it was there. Next time.

We ambled around, and found a museum, the birthplace of one Rudolfa Maistra (Rudolf Maister) – poet, painter, soldier, and military might. I was drawn inside because of the large picture boards outside telling a children’s story. Once inside, the woman behind the desk offered to show us a film of what had happened in the region during WWI. We’d both grown up hearing and reading about WWI from the Western front – and this was our first time to see it from the Eastern perspective. Fascinating. Really fascinating. Unfortunately, Maister’s books are not yet in translation but we were definitely educated.

When they were doing up the house to ready it for the museum, they found a stenciled pattern on the wall – and it’s given me ideas.

Given my thing for cemeteries, I’m raging I missed the Cuzak Meadow mass grave with the remains of several hundred soldiers and civilians, mostly Croats and Serbs, murdered on 11 May 1945, no doubt suspected of being collaborators who were fleeing towards Austria. Slovenia has more than 600 of these mass graves dotted around the country.  Slovenian historian Jože Dežman has compared them to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Known in Slovenian as prikrita grobišča (concealed mass graves) or  zamolčana grobišča (silenced mass graves), they were kept under wraps from 1945 to 1990 during the Communist regime. Next time, I will be sure to pay my respects.

We motored on, stopping for a late lunch in the village of Motnik, drawn in by its two churches:  the Baroque parish church of Saint George and the chapel of Mary Magdalene. On the notice board by the closed tourist office, there was mention of a snail. But it was in Slovenian and only later did I discover that the village is the birthplace of Gašper Križnik, who made his name by collecting fairy tales and to this day is honoured by a fairytale festival (annual, I think).  One tale tells the story of a giant snail, which broke free of its chains and ran (yes, ran) through the country. The stuff nightmares are made of. On the outskirts of the village is its other main attraction – a double-hayrack with its intricately carved roof. There are eight apparently in the ‘hood, but this one, Vrbančev toplar – is the most impressive.

What we missed here were the fossilized remains of a pygmy rhinoceros that were discovered in a nearby coalmine (brown coal at that) in 1910. Who’d have thunk it?

Slovenia is a gem of country and one to go back to again and again. And why wouldn’t we? Sure, it’s only over the road. If you plan to visit, and are interested in exploring, this little guidebook is the one to bring.

 

Slap Savica

I send postcards. Handwritten. Probably illegible. I might forget to post them until weeks after I’ve been to wherever it is I’ve been, but I still send postcards. And I was dead chuffed to receive one from one of my nephews from Singapore – perhaps there’ll be two of us now, keeping the tradition alive. Anyway, on my last batch, I wrote from Slovenia and reckoned that God must have had Alaska on His mind when He was making that part of the world. It truly is spectacular. Granted, it has churches that Alaska doesn’t have and the mountains only look snow-covered (that damn karst had me fooled at every corner), and the lakes are very swimmable, but Alaska is certainly what comes to mind.

 

Bledded out, we moved further up the Bohinj valley in in the Julian Alps to Lake Bohinj. It’s part of Triglav National Park and the much-touted Slap Savica – (slap is Slovenian for waterfall I think). But first, the town or village which sits on the edge of the lake. Like nearby Lake Bled, it’s chocolate-box stuff. The arched bridge frames the lake and the 700-year-old Church of St John the Baptist with its beautiful frescoes. The church is open and entrance is free. What a novelty.

I wondered about the fresco of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. He appears on the outside walls of many churches in Slovenia but this one is different in that three layers are visible: the first dates back to c.1300, the second to c. 1400 and the third to c. 1530. Apparently, seeing St Christopher is supposed to bring you good luck on your travels for the rest of the day. I had heard that St Christopher was no longer a saint or the patron saint of travellers but apparently this isn’t so. Yes, his feast day has been removed from the Church calendar but he hasn’t been defrocked. He was one of 93 saints demoted in 1969 by the Vatican. As the story goes, he carried a child across a river – and the child got heavier and heavier as he was carrying the weight of God. But in the absence of historical evidence that St Chris every actually existed in the flesh and blood, he was dropped. But he’s alive and well and keeping travellers safe in Slovenia.

 

We drove the narrow, windy road up to Triglav National Park passing the cops as they doled out parking tickets to cars abandoned on the sides of the road. They made a fortune that day. We were headed towards Slap Savica. At the end of the road, there’s a parking fee to park your car as you can take it no farther. Then you hike up some to the entrance of the trail where you pay another €3 to walk it. Slovenia knows how to charge. Never massive amounts but irritating dribs and drabs … I’d prefer to pay a heftier park entrance fee than to be hit as I go along. Anyway, I huffed up the 521 steps to the waterfall, enjoying the view along the way and taking a breather ever 100 steps or so. There’s quite a bit of walking in between batches of steps so the glutes got a workout. But man, was I ever underwhelmed. One thing Alaska has in spades is waterfalls. Majestic, impressive beasts that do the term justice. Slap Savica wasn’t worth the workout. Not for me. But what do I know? Apparently, it’s ‘unique among world waterfalls – its watercourse is divided into two parts in the hidden undergrounds. The famous A-shaped waterfall normally comes into sight at an altitude of 836 m and is 78 m high.’ Am still not convinced. Perhaps it was the time of year.

 

Still, it’s a lovely part of the world. A picnic by the lake on the way back and a quick swim in the cool, clear, fish-inhabited waters, was a perfect end to a lovely afternoon. If I wasn’t otherwise occupied on 14 September, I’d be tempted to go back to the Cows’ Ball. Maybe next year.