The road to Gdansk

For someone who grew up in the southern parts of Africa in those dark global political days of the sixties, seventies and eighties, places such as Gdansk, Poznan, Donestk and Warschau were so far out of reach that I never thought that I may one day visit them, let alone see some brilliant soccer (football to the uneducated rest of the world) in one of them.

‘The road is long
with many a winding turn’

Furthermore, who would have thought that it will be to watch soccer that I will travel many many kilometres to watch as I grew up in South Africa where real men played rugby. We did not dive onto the grass pitch in agony if someone came within half a meter of you, clutching your ankle while looking to see if the referee actually believed your near Oscar winning performance!

And then you have kids and your whole world changes forever. We attended two Confed cup games in South Africa in 2008 as the pre-run for the Soccer World Cup 2010 and were hooked on this soccer thing. Both kids simply embraced the soccer and started to become real enthusiastic supporters and followers. In 2010 we watched 11 games in total and by this time the family was clearly divided between Spain and Germany, with me fighting for my rightful place in the rugby seats every now and then. Obviously we were Bafana supporters too, but they were sort of in the B-league. I mean, its due to the treatment Bafana received from officials and Suarez that still has me completely put off from this brilliant Uruguayan striker. Against the calibre of i.e. Torres, Piqué, Puyol, Xavi, Müller, Podolski, Schweinsteiger, Heuer (to name a few) even the likes of Matfield, Habana, Steyn (Frans), Bismarck and Hoeha (Hougaard according the Stuart Barnes on Sky) seemed to fade away.

So now Euro 2012 arrived and Cara obtained two tickets for Spain versus Ireland to be played in Gdansk.

Two tickets, great experience

The GPS is a wonderful little device and it’s hard to think back to those old days of travel, where I was driving and Heleen instructing from a Road Atlas. I can boast that I have driven the streets of Paris before the days of GPS and survived to boast about it!

With the GPS, you never get lost, though you still don’t always know where you are!

With our Gdansk trip, it was a little bit of that. We entered Poland and suddenly we were on this magnificent brand new piece of highway (tolled at 31 zloti for the 200km odd to Poznan – 3.4 zlotis buys you 1 euro) with a speed limit of 140km/h. ‘Easy peazy’ I thought, we’ll be in Gdansk soon. However, when the highway ends, you are thrown onto anyone of a few small roads where you have to do the next 200 plus kilometres at 50km/h, then 70km/h and sometimes the luxury of 90km/h but hardly ever for more than 8 to 10 km stretches though. It was late at night by then, I already had the better part of eight hours’ driving under the belt and this was not fun anymore. We did fortunately twice see foxes on these small stretches and seeing wildlife is always a huge delight to me, thus looking back; it was still an enjoyable drive.

It was 00:30 when we reached our campsite at Sopot and lights out an hour later after pitching the tent and relaxing with a hot shower.

Gdansk is a lovely port city on the shore of the southern Baltic Sea with the little spa beach resort town Sopot bordering its western flank.

Free city of Danzig

When Poland regained its independence after World War 1, Poland hoped that Gdansk would again be a mayor port harbour for them. However, according to the stipulation of the Treaty of Versailles, and since the majority of the Gdansk population were actually German natives, Gdansk did not fall back to Poland, but instead became a sort of quasi state called ‘The Free city of Danzig’ with its own constitution, anthem and even postal service, which, though the Poles had free use of the port, it caused tension between the neighbours.

My good old buddy, Henk back in the eighties and its share of political turmoil often used the phrase that its sport and music that makes the world turn!

‘Boere Spanjaarde’

And this proved so true in Gdansk last week. With all political tension of the past simply forgotten and all attention festively focused on singing, drumming, probably small amounts of beer and soccer the ‘Dlugi Targ’ (Long Market) were filled with fans enjoying themselves and the diversity amongst the crowd.

The local brew

Spaniards and Irish with plenty of Poles and three South Africans (we did notice one other Saffa trying his best to blend in with the Irish supporters wearing his similarly-than-the-Irish-attire green coloured Proteas cricket shirt) in-between them, simply absorbing the atmosphere in great anticipation of what lies ahead in the PGE Gdansk Arena later that evening.

Irish support in Long Market

And then it was stadium time!

Cara at the PGE Gdansk Arena

Before I say anything more I need to say to all those out there who is so quick to criticise the Spanish players for not singing along with their national anthem, ‘their national anthem has no words! You can’t sing along to the Spanish anthem, you can at best hum!’

There were probably three times more Irish supporters than the Spanish and nothing ever silences them! Not even a first goal in less than 4 minutes for Torres, who at long last again had an excellent game. Though he personally only had ball possession for 38 seconds during the match, he had 5 shots at goal of which 2 were successful. Welcome back El Nino!

No uncertainty who is supported

The Irish were brave and though the score-line was hugely in favour of Spain at 4:0 in the end, it was a great game of football with the Irish always competitive and threatening when they obtained possession. And on the stands they were the ones never stopping to sing and chant their support to their ‘men in green’. However, the sheer class of ‘la Roja’ was too much and in the end it was an emphatic win for the current Europe and World ‘campeón’.

The atmosphere with the traditional drumming of the Spanish support and singing of the Irish made me realise just how much that droning of vuvuzelas took away from the great traditional supporting singing and drumming at the World Cup in South Africa 2 years ago. In hindsight, they should definitely have been banned from the stadiums.

Sopot camp site

The alarm clocks were set for 07:00 the next morning to start the 1300km journey back home, but due to the very short nights in this part of the world in summer, the cold sleeping in our little two-man tent and the continuous stream of singing and shouting Irish supporters returning from their ‘nights on the town’ we were up at just after 04:00 and started to pack-up.

 ‘The road was long

With many a winding turn

That leads us who knows where, …’

 It was a short and intensely packed visit to Gdansk, driving through stunning Poland rural areas with grain fields and forests as far the eyes could see. We had just one day to look around and see the Sopot beaches and the stunning old part of the city of Gdansk, which included a magnificently preserved medieval port crane. I did however see enough to realise this is a stunning destination to spend more time in if the opportunity arises again. It will make for great summer vacation. Though there is simply no way you can understand any Polish with just English or Afrikaans as background, there seems to be more young people able to speak English, even than in Germany?

The Sopot beach, where the daily catch is sold and where you can leisure in the sun, with plenty cafes and bars at hand

And one should never underestimate the good for a country, especially the not so wealthy countries, which comes with hosting events such as a World Cup or the UEFA EURO 2012. It’s evident in infrastructure and hospitability of people all around you. And if managed correctly after the event is gone and dusted, it can lift a country to that needed next level to sustain and grow on what was achieved due to the event. I sincerely hope both Poland and the Ukraine will experience that.

Thanx Cara, I had a great trip.

Under the Tuscan sun

Never lose your childish enthusiasm and things will come your way’ Een van my fav quotes uit die movie. Julle leef nou “in many directions’ – Laurette on ‘Under the Tuscan Sun

The kids had a mid-term break last week and we decided to head south, all the way south to the stunning idyllic and warm Tuscany in central Italy. Due to some work commitments, we had to drive via Munich, which added kilometers to the already packed itinerary, but to the bright side also added to the places to see. To get to Italy from Germany driving you have to go over/through and many kilometers under the Alps, with it’s majestic ‘chocolate box’ picturesque scenery of mountains, lakes, farmhouses and villages spread on the mountain slopes. Though the Austria scenery is well known to most people it’s well worth to note that the dolomites of the Italian side are in a certain sense more ‘stunning’. It’s rougher, more rugged by nature and scattered with vertical cliffs and rock face, as opposed to the green green grass slopes of the north face.

Since there was a long weekend in the week that we planned, I did book us accommodation for three nights, which meant we had options open for Tuesday, to find a suitable stopover. I’m never sure whether we are really lucky in stumbling upon these gems of destinations, or whether we are still just in awe with the variety and beauty of Europe, but once again I found a gem, the stunning little Riva del Garda on Lago di Garda (lake Garda for the language ‘slow’ readers). Riva is on the northern shore of the lake and reminded me very much of the Margate or Mosselbay type setup back home. Large caravan parks packed to the brim with campers, caravans or motorhomes while the rest of the town is scattered with holiday apartments, small hotels and trattorias, bars and coffeeshops.

A trattoria is less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria.

We popped in to the nearest trattoria enjoying the perfect weather under the clear skies (with daylight well after 21:00), as well as the very funny continuous conversation of an elderly Italian gentleman at the table next to ours, babbling along in Italian. He’s obviously been sitting there for a while, appreciating the ‘vino blanco’ and large heap of prawns, but hungry for conversation. It was a pity that we speak no Italian whatsoever, and he no English, nor Afrikaans. However, we chatted away and he made sure that the waitress looked after us. So beautiful was the evening that we strolled along the shore of the lake after dinner, had another glass of wine outside at another establishment as well as more coffee.

Coffee! Its probably worthwhile to spend a minute on the topic of coffee. In Europe coffee is generally good and you’ll never be disappointed with a brew. However, you need to know what you want when you order and where as most Saffas will frown when you order a coffee in Italy and you get half an espresso you will never be disappointed with the flavor.

The look of a great Italian brew
The tower provides all kinds of creative poses

While you’re in the vicinity of something great, you must use the opportunity and see it. This is why I decided to take a stunning scenic long road traversing the Apennine mountain range between Parma (yes, of the ham fame) and La Spezia on the Mediterranean and then tilt south to stop and lean over for a few photos and late lunch at the Tower of Pisa. Some things and places are just so well known that it’s difficult to say creative things about them, and that’s why I normally try not to state the obvious. However, some of these clichéd tourist destinations are so magnificent in grandeur and laced with history, that it would be a sin to brush them aside.Take the (obviously leaning) Tower of Pisa, for instance. Construction started on 8 August 1173! That’s 839 years ago! The tower was built in three stages over 177 years, and already began to sink and thus tilt during phase one of construction in 1178. This was due to a foundation of only three meters deep and soft soil underneath. I know a couple of civil engineers, and I hope you guys take note of this flaw; as the Bible also tells us, build on rock, not on sand! Fortunately war broke out, and the construction was stopped for nearly 100 years, which gave the soil time to settle before construction was continued. The slant today is 3.97° or 3.9 meters from the vertical. That is huge and clearly visible, and that exact fact is why, if you are in the vicinity, you simply have to tick this destination from your ‘to do’ list.

The tower to the Cathedral

The accommodation in Tuscany I found was through the Italian farm accommodation system ( in a restored farmhouse a few kilometers outside the small town of Panzano in Chianti called Agritur San Clemente.

Agritur San Clemente, our accommodation near Panzano for three nights

It’s a stunning huge house and we had it to ourselves! Arriving there after 22:00 proved a bit of a problem though, as the owner had our arrival for a month later, and thus the place was locked up and dead quite. I found his mobile number (cellphone for the guys back home) but this old Italian ‘omie’, though very nice and extremely helpful, does not speak one word of English (again nor Afrikaans!). I took comfort from his ‘pronto, pronto’ though and waited. He was there in an Italian efficient ‘pronto’ (not everything happens quickly in Italy, but when they drive, it does happen in a flash) and we could get into our accommodation. Communication from thereon was via his computer and Google translate though I did understand his question of ‘café?’ in the mornings.

Tuscany is not just beautiful yellow grain or purple lavender fields and stone farmhouses. Tuscany actually has stunning large areas of naturel forest and small mountain roads crisscrossing the entire province. The farmhouses are all architectural masterpieces in their own right and mostly built of rock. (Marita, you must come here and enjoy their inspiration, and we’ll join you!) The result of the forest being so well preserved is that there is also abundant wildlife left in Tuscany and driving at night is just as dangerous as in the bushveld of South Africa with especially wild boar (those wild boar Obelix are so fond of) being a major threat. After midnight, we heard a crash and looking out of the window saw that a car actually struck and killed a boar outside our house. The car sounded in pretty bad shape when the guy drove off and the dead boar was left next to the road. Not 15 minutes later three small cars pulled in and with the girls giggling after a night of partying they loaded the ‘road kill’ and drove off, some 130 kg of fresh ‘cinghiale’ for all those lovely Italian dishes.

The next day we explored some stunning little towns, including Volterra, which has a well preserved, walled old town and which is an important location in Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight series. In the books, Volterra is home to the Volturi, a coven of powerful and ancient vampires. Fortunately we didn’t come across any of the Volturi! Maybe now I must try to watch one of these Twilight stories.

Strolling the streets of Volterra
Volterra street

We ventured all the way to the coast at Bibbona where my family even had a swim in the Mediterranean while I leisured on the beach.

And then there was Firenze. Firenze (Florence sounds so English for such a magnificent Italian city) is where the Duomo (third largest cathedral in the world) and the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) are the largest attractions, but the city in its entirety is something special. Due to its artistic and architectural heritage, it has been ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the city is noted for its history, culture, Renaissance art, architecture and monuments. The Palazzo Vecchio (or city hall) overlooks the Piazza della Signora and it’s in the entrance of the Palazza Vecchio where Michelangelo’s David stood from its completion in 1504 to 1873, when it was moved to the Accademia Gallery. We unfortunately we missed out to enter the Accademia Gallery due to the long queues. Some things I should definitely plan better in the future.

Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge arching over the Arno river in Firenze. Great pic Heleen

We did not miss out on the stunning views of Firenze from the Piazzale Michelangiolo on a small hill just outside the city though.

The Duomo in Firenze.
‘Dance me to the end of love’
While a few couples dance the night away, we enjoyed the stunning view of Firenze and Heleen really did good work with the photography

Heleen and I have been in Firenze together in 1994 and experienced one of those magical ‘wow’ winter Sunday afternoons then. After long hours of train travel in 1994, we headed out to this hill to just catch our breath. It was winter, cold and we have been backpacking through a very cold Europe for a few weeks already when we sat down on the steps, just enjoying the sunset over the stunning Firenze skyline with the Duomo standing out majestically from the rest of the city when a young guy started fiddling on his guitar and lazily singing along. Ever since that Sunday afternoon, Firenze has been a special memory for Heleen and me and I was a bit hesitant to spoil that with our visit now, in summer, with a family and driving up there in a car. It seemed so different. But the view was the same, the steps are the same and there were two guys producing acoustic music suited to the occasion as well. The steps filled up with people sitting around, sipping wine and listening, and my kids appreciated and enjoyed the moment just as much as we did, thus completing another memorable visit to Firenze.

Music on the steps

It was time to start heading home, but not before we enjoyed the tiny little town square (rather town corner) of our host town Panzano

Tuscan scenery of Panzano

and a stroll through the markets of Greve in Chianti. Chianti is the main wine producing area of Italy and though the general drinking wine in the day to day drinking price range from Italy is, in my taste, inferior to the Cape wines, when you fork out a few euros more, you do get the good stuff. I suppose it’s to be expected that they will have quality too, as they have hundreds of years more history and experience in this time consuming art of wine making. One of the other delicacies and products is the olives and it’s oils, and judging from the many many olive orchards on the hills, you can really tuck into into these, as they will not run out of stock any time soon.

A Panzano farmhouse

It was a long drive home and we broke it with a last treat of a sleepover in the little town Beckenreid on the Lake of Luzerne in Switzerland, which provide further stunning views of the Swiss lake and Alps amongst greenery and rain clouds.

It was a 3020 km trip safely completed in a five days. Just to put it in perspective, it’s the same distance as travelling to Cape Town and back from Pretoria. This, however, is through four different countries and enabled us to see highlights such as the Alps on the Swiss/Austrian side as well as the dolomite side of Italy, the stunning Lago di Garda, crossing the Apennines, venturing through much of Tuscany including Pisa, Firenze and smaller towns as well as the rural splendor of Tuscany and driving through many tunnels of which the longest was the 19.9km Gotthard tunnel.

We came to Europe to travel and see things. This was a great few days.