Cold and Grey, with protesting rays of sanity and beauty

Feb 2017

Can you imagine having been intimidated, interrogated and abused in the ‘old days’ of madness, and then many years later, after walls came tumbling down, you bump into your bully in a grocery store?

That’s the story our hotelier in the amazing city Schwerin shared with us at breakfast. His wife was clearly still shaken up by this experience, but that is so much reality in many parts of Germany, or the larger previously communist Eastern Europe.

Heleen and I decided to explore the far northeast of Germany for a week and to see what surprise destinations, in both sights and history we could find. And oh boy, did I enjoy it.

Schwerin is the capital city of German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is particularly known for its breath-taking palace. The palace is currently the office of the state government and is situated on the lake island just out of town. It was February and as can be imagined, the weather was not ‘African friendly’ weather, but we were brave, tightened the scarves and strolled the beautiful island, amazed at the majestic palace before we sniffed out a delicious traditional German potato-, leek- and ‘wurst’ soup with bread and a glass of nearly acceptable quality wine in the well preserved ‘altstadt’.

IMG_7010Schwerin Palace
Schwerin Palace

I attempt to also appreciate the extremely interesting other historic periods strolling the town and sights, but the Stasi- and the cold war period is constantly in my head. So much more after having a very absorbing conversation with our hotelier and being informed that the big empty building 200m from the hotel is actually the old Stasi Head Office, where his wife had her nightmare experience many years before. It was actually right there on our doorstep and one of many places where so many serious atrocities happened resulting in numerous innocent people’s life so dramatically influenced by the communist and socialist bully methods. This incident, of the hotelier wife and her face-to-face years later with her interrogator immediately reminded me of Anna Fulder’s book, Stasiland, and that particular comment Miriam made to Anna when she said, ‘And I think about those Stasi men. They would never in their lives have imagined that they would seize to exist and that their offices would become a museum. A museum!’ She then further says ‘I like to drive up to the Runde Ecke and park right outside. I just sit there in the car and I feel …. triumph! Miriam makes a gesture which starts as a wave, and becomes a guillotine. ‘You lot are gone’.

 

Schwerin Stasi Office
‘You lot are gone!’

And that’s the lesson. Nothing lasts. Not Eric Mielke and his Stasi nor the Gadaffi’s, Sadam Hussains, or Robert/Grace Mugabes and their cronies.

I like driving around in these remoter parts of the over developed Germany. Here you still get a feeling that its slightly remote and rural – definitely not Karoo remote – but at least slightly less built up than Northrhein Westfalen, where we live. Once you’ve succeeded in shifting the Stasi history out of your head for a while, you realise how scenically beautiful this part of Germany is. Schwerin sits next to a beautiful lake, the Schwerin See, (yes, the Europeans call a lake a sea and the sea a ‘meer’, but then again, Obelix did repeatedly state that they are slightly crazy!). This northern coast provides some extra scenic splendour including the white cliffs at Putgarten on the island Rügen. It’s a worthwhile destination to go hiking, even in bad weather. Bad weather here has the knack to shut you off from the rest of the world. Its just you, the grey of the air and sea and the beautiful green of the coast, with a bleak hint of the whitish cliffs in the distance. And just before you freeze, you end your hike back in town in a small pub-like restaurant with thick vegetable soup and fresh bread. Winter here is grey, but it’s a grey that has its own peculiar excellence.

Putgarten Clifs

Further east and on the border with Poland is the holiday town, Heringsdorf, on the Usedom Island. The area is known as Kaiserbad, as it was the favourite spa destination of the German Emperors in days gone by due its its clean beaches and the long sandy stretch. It actually is the longest sand beach in Europe, being 40km in total distance. Heringsorf was our base for a few days from where we visited the astonishing Świnoujście (Swinemünde) which has a harbour in the river mouth of the Swine river. This was a major German naval base during WW2 as well as the Cold War period. On the beaches of Heringsdorf the military lookout towers are still plentiful. The irony about these is that they were mostly used, similar to the Berlin Wall, to keep the ‘free’ people of the German ‘Democratic’ Republic from defecting, and not so much as defending against external threats entering!

Beach whatch tower
Keeping your people from defecting, not enemies from entering

Some 40km to the west of Heringsdorf we strolled in fascination through the museum in Peenemünde. Here an Army Research Centre was founded in 1937. Many serious weapons, including guided missile and rocket weapons were tested and designed here using the nearby concentration camp inmates as forced labour – forced to build weapons they knew would destroy their homeland and massacre their own people. During the Cold War Soviet days it was rumoured that the Soviets revived Peenemünde for their space program.

 

Heading back home to Bad Honnef, I decided to drive via the historic towns of (Lutherstad) Wittenberg and Erfurt to spend a few hours in the footsteps of Martin Luther, the father of the German Protestant movement. It is 500 years ago (October) since he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and certainly was a door I needed to see. The Luther church was inspiring to see, but as a town the old part of Erfurt was something extraordinary. It was here, in Erfurt where Martin Luther was ordained in the Cathedral of St Mary, which dates back to the 8th century and where he also delivered many of his sermons. Still intact in Erfurt is the Krämerbrucke (or merchant bridge) and its medieval houses spanning the Gera River. The original bridge was an important part of the trade and pilgrims routes connecting Rome with the Baltic Sea. It was originally a wooden bridge but was destroyed many times by fire. The current stone bridge, which is lined on both sides with half-timbered houses, was completed in 1472.

 

En route back home to ‘West Germany’, we stopped a last stop to sort of exit ‘Eastern Germany’ officially at a fantastically interesting museum called Point Alpha. Its one of many ‘Grenz’ museums where the ‘iron curtain’ became real. Point Alpha specifically was the border between the towns Rasdorf in the west and Geisa in the east. It has an excellent museum depicting the inner German border as well as some well-preserved samples of various stages of the original border.

 

After a thoroughly enjoyable week back in history and into a cold grey era, I must admit that there was a feeling of relief that we were heading west, and that it was into an era well beyond 9 November 1989, the day when such important walls came tumbling down. Walls aren’t the answer.

Routemap

Namibia – Land of beauty and space

‘On day four, it was time to move on. Francois and Talitha said their goodbyes and headed back to Wildernis, while we headed north-west, towards Mata Mata and its border post. We still had 10 days ahead to explore the vast distances and rugged beauty of the Namib and Etosha. Distance for today was 774km of dirt road; pure ‘lekkerte!’’

Mata Mata is one of the three conventional camps in the Kgalagadi and lies on the eastern border of Namibia with the convenience of a border post. One can enter and exit Namibia at this post if you stay in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for two nights, preventing the park becoming a transit route, which is obviously a good rule. Namibia has vast distances and travellers more often than not underestimate the travel distances and times. I too made that mistake. Not so much in my planning, but more so in my execution. Enjoying the goodbyes with Francois and Talitha, the showers in Twee Rivieren and the game drive from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata too much, meant that we exited South Africa about three hours later than initially planned. We still had 570km to cover from Mata Mata to Sesriem, and it was already after lunchtime. Of the 570km 90% was dirt roads, which translates to at least 8 hours of driving. Its normally not a problem, but this being wild country with plenty of wild animals, its not wise to travel after sunset. That clichéd quote ‘its better to travel hopeful than to arrive’ really rang true that evening, with frequent encounters with oryx, zebra, kudu and other large animals roaming the roads in the dark. Fortunately, we travelled well and arrived safely at Sossus Oasis Camp Site, Sesriem.

IMG_2450

Namibia must be one of the best-kept secrets and I actually don’t want to promote it too much through my blog, as I’m afraid of more people traveling there and spoiling it for us selfish ones. It is pristine, wild, mostly dry, tranquil but rough and expansive. And why I have a very selfish stance on trying my little best to keep it that way is because people spoil things. Sitting and enjoying our campfire late afternoon the next day, sipping a Pinotage from Tulbach and not speaking much, the serenity was abruptly ended by an Englishman and a German entering a particularly abusive shout-fest over their camping spot and access to the electricity. Right there and then, Europe spoiled a perfect African setting for the better part of an hour. But the rough beauty of the place convinced me to ignore them and enjoy the splendour of God’s creation.

Continue reading “Namibia – Land of beauty and space”

Kgalagadi

Though Lufthansa may be at risk, due to their lack of customer service (see my previous post Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story), we eventually did arrive in South Africa, and we did enjoy all the promised ‘braais’, ‘kuiers’ and catch-up with all and sundry; exactly the things Expats do when returning home for a visit. It was fortunately not ‘allesverloren’!

A truly special place is the Kgalagadi. Its one of those places which I truly wish I could show off to everybody I meet in Europe. It’s a pristine wilderness in the dry western parts of South Africa and Botswana as God intended and where wild beasts roam freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth, and that was the first destination of our two week Kgalagadi and Namibian safari.

Special places require special equipment. Though the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park has normal dirt roads and its theoretically accessible with a sedan, its not advisable. Even when the roads are well maintained, you are still confronted with high sand walls next to most of the roads, which means while we are scanning the wide plains for Oryx, Springbuck, Lions et al from the raised elevation of the Land Rover, the sedan driver scans a meter high sand wall for ants, grouse and desert rats! To fully enjoy the Kgalagadi, one needs to have a bakkie, kombi or similar high, big tyres vehicle.

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Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story

When I blog on my travel, I prefer to focus on the good stuff, because travel writing is a good thing, it’s a learning experience and its about sharing motivation with others to pack their bags and find new places, meet new people, eat new food and create new stories. My Blog post number 39 however, is a sour, ugly one. I met people I would rather not. I don’t like it, and I am hesitant to post it. It’s a story of travel going wrong, which does happen, and giving me an eye-opener on how ugly and incompetent problem-solving by a world-renowned corporation can be.

I’m sitting in the Vienna airport with a cold beer waiting for my connecting flight to Doha after what was probably my worst ever weekend of traveling in my life and I’m struggling how to approach this blogging task. In my head I hear the good lesson I learnt from Dr. Humphrey Mathe over and over again. ‘When you have a difficult assignment to write about’, he taught me, ‘write it after time has passed, then let it sit for a few hours, then read it twice, and then re-write it so that you don’t include too much emotion’. Its wise words, and I’ll try, but its also an incident I would like to report on exactly how I experienced it. (this previous paragraph I wrote in July 2016, while still in the emotion of the incident. I let it simmer until today, but it still bugs me).

Continue reading “Flight LH572 July 22, 2016 : An ugly story”

The Vikings have gone soft

Click the photos to enlarge

My view of the Vikings are really a scary image in my head of Hägar or Hiccup’s Dad being afraid of nothing and causing fear in everybody crossing their paths. But that reality has long gone. It is sort of generally accepted that that age lasted from the Viking raid on the Lindisfarne Monastery in Northern England in 793 until the battle of Hastings in 1066, a seriously brutal 273 years in northern Europe. Denmark is seen as the historical home to the Vikings and though once feared across Europe for their raids and killing sprees they have significantly calmed down. The modern day Viking, if we consider the Danes’ Viking heritage, is a ‘peaceful bunch that traded their long-ships for bicycles’ (according the the Visitdenmark website).

I think, after my week long traveling through Denmark, I can concur that they are actually a civilised and peaceful looking bunch, with plenty of modern engineering evidence in some awesome bridges and beautiful nature being preserved. Maybe too civilised as well. Denmark is regarded as the world’s happiest country, measured on criteria such as a strong social support system, freedom to live as one please and low perceived business and government corruption. Especially number two, living as one please was very insightful for me, as we went for a short stroll through the notorious free town of Christiana.

Christiana is sort of a hippy commune, to this day. It was founded in 1971 in an abandoned military camp in Copenhagen. For about 4 decades it was nothing more than a hippy squatter camp where selling and smoking all sorts of funny stuff was ‘accepted’ by turning a blind eye. Since 2011, the property was negotiated to belong to the community and residents could apply to get a living space. Its still a dump, don’t get me wrong, but its an interesting dump. Hippies trade and live and smoke and seem generally happy, but according to some warnings, you should not be too relaxed. Specific warnings against taking photos are plentiful and can apparently turn violent if disobeyed. However, we strolled deep into Christiana, up to a point where the hairs in the back of your neck told you to rather turn back and head out. Scrutinising eyes and disapproving gazes started to feel threatening. We turned back before we could see if there’s still a bit of Viking smouldering in the modern day Dane living in Christiana.

Copenhagen in general is a beautiful city, with plenty of sights and interesting spots to explore. Its also small enough that its okay to stay in town, have two days at leisure and by foot see most of the city and if you’re lucky enough, even stumble onto the changing of the guards. As with most first visits to new destinations, I do believe you should tick off the obvious attractions, be it only to chat along in the future with a ‘yes, the Copenhagen Mermaid is smaller than I thought, or ‘no, I thought Christianshavn was as beautiful as I imagined, and not overly touristy! Is it overly touristy if there’s always a Chinese restaurant as well?’

A sad reality, which stayed with me since I saw Out of Africa, was the fact the Karen Blixen never returned to Africa after she ‘had a farm in Africa’ for 17 years. I had to see for myself how wonderful a place she had in Denmark to permanently give up her African farm, and I found that surely the family pressure to give up that farm must have been huge. We visited her home in Rungstedlund but unfortunately the museum house was closed. It’s a nice enough setting and beautiful manor and I hopefully one day will get the chance to see the inside, but that farm in Africa!!

Denmark is fairly small. To put it in perspective, from Karen’s house on the east coast to our destination, Esbjerg on the west coast, is a mere 318km or just just more than twice the size of the Kruger National Park back home. Furthermore, for comparison purposes and simply because it is interesting, there are according to the 2011 census 6.85 million Afrikaans speakers (first language) in South Africa, while there are about 6 million Danish speakers (first language). Adding all the expats nowadays, there’s probably a million more Afrikaans speakers spread all over the world; I personally know of at least 7 in Köln.

Thus, it was a easy leisurely drive east, stopping at Roskilde’s Viking Museum to have a coffee and sandwich with Hägar and company, before having the coldest photo-shoot of my life at the awe-inspiring Storebælt suspension bridge at Halsskov. If the Vikings have gone soft, they surely make up for that loss in their gained skills for building infrastructure. This is a magnificent bridge, consisting of three ‘sections’; a suspension motor highway (pun intended as its 65 meters above the sea) and 6.7km long. With its 65 meters clearing, the world’s largest cruise ship class can pass under the bridge with its smoke stack folded. This ‘East Bridge’ part is the third longest suspension bridge in the world and is complemented with a twin tunnel rail system which provide thorough fare for trains, under the sea, with the two tunnels being 8 km long. From the little island Sprogø to the mainland at Knudshoved the cars and trains commute side by side across a box girder bridge that is 6.6 km long and with an 18 meters clearing. But let me say again, this place can be cold. That wind blows from Greenland across Iceland and the icy North Seas, makes a sharp right turn before Gothenburg to come and freeze curious travellers who dare to exit their cars for a photo or coffee break. Dress warmly!

Denmark is a fascinating country, but the best of the best sights for me surely was the natural wonder and the pure awe of the Creation visible at the west coast Wadden Sea islands, such as Rømø. Here, we waded on the beaches of the Wadden Sea (Vadehavet in Danish) where its wide, long and flat and beautifully serene. I constantly had the images in my head from a translated TV series I watched as a kid, where ‘Sill se Lobke’ roamed the beaches with her farther as ‘Strandlopers’ (beach drifters) to collect the wreckage and stuff washed up on the beaches from ships, and which they could use or sell. I know Sill was from Sweden, but the scenes were the same. It took me back in time to my childhood and reminded me how I always wanted to travel and see places such as those beaches Sill and Lobke frequented, and now I was so blessed to be able to that, with my best travel buddy at my side. The Wadde Sea is a large part of the north-western coast of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark and is listed on the UNESCO World heritage lists. Some parts are well developed, such as the German island, Sylt (and then seriously expensive too at €95 to ferry your car over by the compulsory train), but there are magnificent natural and nature rich areas kept in its natural conservation state. It must be visited, even just to see that you need to time your visits carefully. We booked a room through Booking.com without realising the reality of the area, on the island Mandø. Approaching the town of Ribe en route to Mondø, we received a call from the innkeeper saying we can’t come, ‘ve are flooding’.

We then Google searched and realised the road from the mainland to the island is a dirt road, thus not really ‘flat car’ accessible for one-, but a more significant reason, its covered by anything between 50 to 100 cm of sea during high tide, and this was high tide.

Wadden2
Waders on the beach
Wadden1
Rømø island Wadden Sea beauty and my beauty
Wadden3
The ferry in a distance between Rømø and Sylt

The world is small. We booked into an Air B&B near the rural town of Skærbæk on a farm for one evening. The owner was not around and the farmhand came to provide the necessary towels and stuff. After chatting and discovering that we are South Africans, he confessed to also being a Saffa, Wilhelm Schutte, from Schoemansville, a little town on the outskirts of Pretoria. Then we spent a lovely few hours chatting in Afrikaans over a South African red wine we bought in the Danish ‘platteland’ with a ‘Danish’ farmer who’ve been working in Europe for more than 20 years.

After a quick overnight visit to Sylt, we headed home. Sylt is beautiful, but to my taste, the more natural and less touristy islands in the Danish part of the Wadden Coast are a much better destination. I’ll go again.

Rivierboot

Heading home, meant crossing the Nord-Ostsee Kanal, one of the other engineering sights I had on my to-do list for this trip. This canal crosses Germany’s neck and allows larger seafaring ships to cut hours from their trip between the North- and the Baltic Seas. Our timing was good and I was able to see a large ship deep inland crossing the continent.

 

It was a terrific week of driving through Denmark, and my conclusion in this day and age; ‘Something is not rotten in Demark’!

and into Yugoslavia (in 2015)

please click the thumbnails for a better view

From my previous post

If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave

My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest,

Golden grand piano

My beautiful Castillo’

For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.

Though often missed as a tourism destination, I made up my mind that Zagreb is a gem and secretly beautiful while genuinely worth a visit.

Its small and I was enthralled while strolling the inner city, just sitting and people watching (photographing) on Ban Jelacic Square or while browsing the open market Dolac. August though, was extremely hot and uncomfortable and after properly enjoying the shortest funicular in the world to elevate us to Gornji Grad or up-town Zagreb enjoying the magnificent Baroque architecture and descending throught the 13th century Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate) to Donji Grad or down-town, it was time to head into the hinterland, where the breathtakingly beautiful Plitvice Lakes awaited.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of those destinations better described by photos.

6.Plitvice Watervalle
Plitvice array of waterfalls

Its waters flow over limestone chalk, building over time various natural dams and waterfalls reminiscent of beaver dams over which one can only stand in awe and take in the wonders of Gods creation. The wooden walkways at the side of the lakes and little bush footpaths provide the opportunity for a leisurely workout in nature, building up a nice sweat while deciding which angles will make the best pictures and traversing the many ups and downs of this nature walk. Its not a tough walk, but it does take time and one should be prepared by at least carrying sufficient water with you. It’s a natural wonder, though, and should be included in any bucket list venturing in the direction of Croatia.

8.Plitvicemeer

 

But man steps in

 

Plitvice is also the sight where the first shots were fired in March 1991 when a policeman was killed as the start of the Croation independent war. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia during the communist era but splintered relations brewed as conflict for many years before the violent eruption in 1991. Croatia and Slovenia had a more liberal (imagine that irony, liberal communism) view and pushed for more autonomy versus the conservative hard-nosed Serbian side. Yugoslavia was a communist country since after WW1 and was made up of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

Traveling is not sight seeing

 

Therefor we enjoy and mostly try to find slightly more ‘authentic’ places to stay. Renting self-catering accommodation in these parts directly from local homeowners provide that ideal opportunity to meet and chat to the locals. We stayed with Ana, in Apartment Ana, in the sort of town area Smoljanac. The beauty of staying here was that you experienced rural Croatian daily life as well. You have the opportunity to buy your beer at the local little crocery shop, and take a seat at the wooden table outside on the street where the local labourers offer you their seats. Maybe because we’re foreigners or maybe because we had our parents with us, but still, six hardworking men, at the end of a long day and enjoying their Ožujsko beer without hesitance giving up their seats made me feel welcome, in an area where right in front of Apartments Ana you still see the sadness of a recent war in the soldier monument guarding the valley. Even today, some houses and building still show the bullet holes in the walls. Except for the tourism and accommodation side of this rural community, the existence is very much small scale farming where beans, tomatoes and corn are picked by hand, goats are milked by hand and all fresh produce produced locally for daily consumption.

9.Bulletholes
Bullet holes still clearly visible in some buildings along the route in the rural areas

 

Dinner at the friendly (or rather I think it was friendly judged by the smiles, service quality and interest in us as we have no idea of the Croatian language, and they very little of English, German and no Afrikaans) Pansion žafran, Smoljanac 88 was delightful. We started to learn more about the Croatian cuisine, realising the influences of what we know as Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and a few regulars from Germany featuring on our plates. There were amongst others schnitzels and pizzas but also cobanac (a delicious spicy meat stew), cevapcici (a type of skinless spicy sausage), burek (a type of pastry dish) and for desert rozata (a flan like caramel covered desert) to name just a few.

 

Self-drive hands you the scenic route

 

Take the scenic route. Stop at the war memorials and plan the extra time to enable you the wonderful sights of the Dalmation coast. That’s what I believe! There are 101 or thereabout stops to be made, photo opportunities or cafe’s to be experienced and simply wondering about life out here when you venture off the beaten track. Taking route 25 through the heart of where serious battles were fought all the way to Karlobag at the coast and across the amazingly beautiful mountain passes to get there proved an excellent choice providing us with a stunningly scenic drive, feeling like an extended Chapman’s Peak, for the entire day. Our end destination was Split.

 

‘Split is nie vandag se kind nie!’               (Split is no youngster)

 

Split is an ancient city with some sources taking economic activity as far back as 2,400 years ago. It was Greek and Roman in its day, but today Split is a proud Croatian city providing a tourist destination ‘par excellance’ including access to many stunning Adriatic islands, perfect for a day tour in the sun and on the salty sea surface. That’s what we did. Chartered a skipper and ski-boat and we explored the fascinating Adriatic Sea, its islands of Hvar and Vis with a first stop in Komiža. We would occasionally dive into the crystal clear blue waters to cool off and then head further exploring. There is never enough time, but we did have time to visit one of my personal highlights, the ex Yugoslavian shelter for boats and submarines on the island Vis, just off the town of Rogačić. This is a 75m deep shelter carved into the shore and which forms part of an entire network of tunnels and underground shelters which the Yugoslavian army occupied for decades.

Further around Vis is the little island Ravnik and the Green Cave, where we ventured in with the boat, had the opportunity to snorkel and enjoy the beautiful images of the sun piercing through a hole in the roof to provide stunning scenes in the crystal clear water inside the cave. I know my home country is ‘the most beautiful country in the world’, but once you’ve broadened your horizons you realise how often beauty is in the eye of the beer holder!

 

Our charter captain for the day, Alex, was a wealth of information and a delight to chat with. While relaxing for lunch at Restaurant Zori, Palmizane, I was able to get him talking about the history, the war and the modern day Croatia. The irony of the situation stays with me. We were having the time of our lives, thinking about Croatia as the best thing since sliced bread and making plans to come live here, while he was only interested to move away, where he can find a ‘proper’ job and be away from the ugliness of what the war reminded him of. He went on about the day the war ended, the evacuating senior officer giving orders to bomb Split, even though his family were still living in Split and how, though he saw the beauty and exciting future of a modern day Croatia, he preferred to move on.

 

The more I learn about Europe, the less I understand war.

 

North of Split is the bay area with is seven Kaštels making up the seven towns, before you reach the walled little gem of a town, Trogir, with its ancient architecture, zillions of photos to be taken, cafè’s to be tried and corners where you can duck behind to just restore your jaw into place after hanging open at the sights. Wealthy families built these seven Kastels in the 1500s mostly as summer residences but also as fortification against the attacking Turks who would come from the sea. Those young Turks certainly were a menace!

10.Kastel
Kastel Gomolica

 

Stumbling onto a gem

 

Starting the long journey back, my daughter took initiative and secured our last stop. We were now taking the highway and not the small roads as we had many kilometres to kill, but it was still a scenic route through the central mountainous terrain, which is Croatia.

 

Ševlje, is a small little rural village in Slovenia, but it’s ideally situated for what we needed. We needed scenery, little mountain roads, a day trip opportunity and a warm shower. Then we would be happy. The fact that we got all of this, plus a delicious home cooked Fettuccini Alfredo courtesy of Linda and Pieter, some good conversation and a sip of wine to discuss the day’s events over, was pure bonus.

 

As is my nature, I selected the smallest little roads to get to Bohinjsko Jezero, or Lake Bohinj. It’s the slightly less famous lake in the Slovenian Alps with that clear Alpine mountain water as forefront and the snow peaked (its August yes) in the background. Old architecture of bridges, churches and more provide amply photographic opportunities, while there’s always sufficient coffee and ice-cream available in Europe. Lake Bled is the more famous one of the two lakes, and has the world famous Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja (maybe slightly more pronounceable Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria) on the Island of Bled in the middle of the lake. After some canoeing on the lake and criss-crossing through and over the mountains to photograph the lonely Church of St Primoz with its majestic outlook over the world, we knew its time to move on.

A fantastic three week road-trip from Cologne, through the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria had to end with quick stopover in Munich, just to show off the Marienplatz to Pa Cas and Ouma Koekoe before embracing the autobahn all the way back.

 

It was a magical three weeks, 4,131km and uncountable photos, laughter, wow-moments, lessons from history, hope for the future and just pure wonderful nature experiences making me realise once more, ‘what a wonderful world’ we have.

Croatia
Our Croatian route

Behind the Iron Curtain (in 2015)

Please click the photos to enlarge and please have a look at the video clip at the end

I do know its been nearly 26 years since this ugly curtain was drawn, but still there is some odd nostalgia to venture behind it, observe the interesting languages, food and diversity, discover the great cities and cringe at the stomach-turning history. Once you’ve seen Auschwitz, realized the terror of the communist cold war on the East European people, the modern day slavery inflicted on nations such as Hungary and slept in the Plitvicka (there should be a upside down caret on that ‘c’ but I have no idea how to type that!) where as recently as 20 years ago the Serbs and Croats were still fighting a fierce civil war, you realize that the human race is evil, really evil. Chris de Burhg says it: ‘I fail to see the wisdom of a war’.

I decided to acknowledge and see this history for myself, and Heleen and I planned our trip. Before you stop reading because ‘you’re not in the mood for a somber dark blog post’, let me entice you with the confirmation that what we have seen and how these former grey dark places have lifted themselves and created wonderful new destinations with breath-taking tourist destinations is the real wow of what we’ve discovered. I believe everyone should visit Eastern Europe.

Prague
Prague

Prague is a majestic old grand city and is often called the Paris of the east. Indeed it is a beautiful city, with a buzz of activity, street music, restored vintage cars as sight seeing opportunities and the exceptional architecture to challenge millions of camera lenses, mobile phones and even tablets; the most awful of tourist camera equipment available! We took a city tour in a 1929 Praga 10 seater car that proved to be an excellent choice. Feeling like the queen (and having to concentrate not to lift the hand in her familiar wave to the crowds) we were entertained through the streets of Prague including the old town, the bridges and the castle hill. We hooked up with friends from South Africa who nowadays stay in Prague and imagined ourselves rubbing shoulders for breakfast with the likes of Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka in the famous restaurant Louvre where both these gentlemen used to ‘hang out’.

The Prague bridge and castle
The Prague bridge and castle

But Prague was still very west and I urged to go deeper and, with a lunch stop over in beautiful Kutna Hora and a fabulous one-night stopover in the rural Czech town Házovice we headed to Krakow, Poland.

On our way, though, was Auschwitz.

This is the most horrific place I have ever seen. I cannot even try to write something about it. What strikes me about this history, and then the more recent war areas we’ve traveled through, is that it’s not ancient. It’s not Vlad the Impaler in the dark ages, or Atilla the Hun. It’s in our day and age. Some of the people involved and responsible for inconceivable atrocities are still living amongst us. In Auschwitz itself, the number varies on how many people were actually murdered there. Polish governments itself reduced their official number down from the originally broadcasted 4m to what seems to be the official number now of around 1.1 million. It’s much less, but by no means any less atrocious. Think about the numbers: 1.1 million people in 5 years. That’s 220,000 people per year being murdered or even more exasperating 603 innocent people per day. These were not soldiers shooting back, these were merely people different from the oppressing Nazi’s! It is incomprehensible! Nonetheless, in my view, and despite its horror, Auschwitz should be visited for the sake of improving the future.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz

Krakow is one funky, beautiful and definitely worthwhile city to visit. During the rule of King Krakus, very much as in the times of Lord Farquart (remember him?) I presume, the farmers in the vicinity of Wawel Hill got so fed-up with the weekly sacrifice of a cow to the local dragon that they ‘poisoned’ him by feeding him a cow skin filled with smoldering sulfur! With the dragon’s rule up in flames, Krakus built his castle in Wawel Hill and voila, Krakow was founded. Or at least, that’s according to some legends.

As with most of Europe, history is filled with violence, war en terror. Krakow is no exception. Krakow as city was spared during WW2, mostly because it served as a major Nazi base and formed the capital of this region. Soon after they, the Nazis decided that they will rid Krakow of all Jews and decided they were not willing to live near the Jews. Initially many Jews were deported, but then the Krakow Ghetto was established. Walled in as part of the city, this was where all Jews had to live in horrendous conditions. To visit the Jewish Ghetto Square and reflect on what happened was a truly thought provoking experience. I think I am loosing all respect in the human race. On the square is a memorial consisting of monumental chairs to signify the habit of the Nazis to enter Jewish apartments and throwing all the furniture out of the window. I immediately remembered why I couldn’t finish watching the film, The Pianist. I simply stopped watching the film when a crippled man in a wheel chair was unceremoniously thrown from the building! But there are always heroes as well, and part of our battery driven 8-seater golf cart tour was a quick visit to the factory of Oscar Schindler.

However, strolling the streets of the magnificent Kazimierz or Jewish Quarters, as well as the Old Town and its magnificent Rynek Glówny, Europe’s largest medieval square (which was grotesquely named Adolf Hitler Platz during the War) gave me new hope. Despite the past and the deliberate destruction of culture and beliefs by a psychotic group, the evidence is there that the people of Krakow have built a funky, modern and stylish city with medieval architecture well intact but complimented with modern cafés, bars and restaurants. It is a pleasure to wander through this fascinating city. A visit to Krakow should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Banskà Stiavnica
Banskà Stiavnica

En route to Budapest and further south, we ventured off the beaten track through the incredibly scenic Štiavnica Mountains and explored the World heritage town Banská Štiavnica in the middle of an ancient caldera (collapsed volcano). I was here much more for the political fascinating (though sometimes truly mind blowing) history, architecture and ‘feel’ than for archeology though. And that ‘feel’ we fortunately did get. In Banská we had the privilege to see the real ‘old world charm’ of the East Block. I am struggling to accurately put in words what I mean when referring to this as charm though, as I have no doubt whatsoever that living under the communist regimes up to the end 80’s was no pleasure. Life was hard, mundane and without any luxury while architecture was unimaginative, square, grey and cold. But for me, now that life has changed for the locals, to wander through towns and apartment blocks in this town I could feel that ghastly reminisce of how isolated and living with eye-patches people were forced to live. Even in 2015 we were stared at strolling down the streets. I could see the curiosity in the eyes of an old man, wearing a vest as shirt, when we passed him, cheerfully and excited chatting in Afrikaans. I wondered if he has ever heard of a country called South Africa. But I more wandered what this man has seen in his approximate 80 years.

Adding to the sheer enjoyment was the limited English and even German understanding in restaurants and shops. Struggling to communicate in an odd manner adds to the enjoyment of travel, as it enhances that feeling of exploring, discovering and achieving, which are the essentials of great traveling.

Budapest, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Budapest, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

There have been many conflicts in Budapest, which as a single city is actually quite new. Originally founded by Celts before the Romans ruled Budapest it is a city with a long and intriguing history. Its name stems from the two Bulgarian fortresses Buda and Pest situated on each side of the Danube River and which only merged as recent as 1870 into one city.

My first visit to Budapest was in January 1994, just five years after the Iron Curtain was lifted. I remember so well how fascinated I was with this absolutely stunning city with its distinctive ‘behind the curtain’ feel to it. I remember Katie Surek (our land lady at that time) complimenting us on our nice clothes (jeans, sweaters and sneakers) and charging us just 8 US dollars per night for accommodation. I remember exactly that feeling of being the only foreigner in the city, everybody staring at us while having magnificent coffee and cake in the classy Gerbeaud Coffee House on Vörösmarty Ter, or strolling the Vaci Utca, Andràssy Utca and the Hösòk Ter (Heroes Square). Said Katie, ‘people came with buses to the city to window-shop when the first Nike store opened in Vaci Utca. The West has arrived and Hungarians could express their individuality by being one self, by working for yourself and achieving for yourself!’

In the harsh winter of 1944 despite the fact he did not have a Jewish name and had married into a catholic family Miklós was rounded up along with others from the ghetto by the ruling Arrow Cross Party for Jewish activities. Like many before him and many more after him he was forced to strip naked on the banks of the Danube and face the river; a firing squad then shot the prisoners at close range in the back so that they fell into the river to be washed away. This was a common practice that occurred during 1944-1945. Sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay have created a moving memorial to these Holocaust atrocities that sits in front of the magnificent Parliament building on the edge of the river. What visitors will see are 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia (the shoes depict children, women, businessmen, sportsmen etc.).
In the harsh winter of 1944 despite the fact he did not have a Jewish name and had married into a catholic family Miklós was rounded up along with others from the ghetto by the ruling Arrow Cross Party for Jewish activities. Like many before him and many more after him he was forced to strip naked on the banks of the Danube and face the river; a firing squad then shot the prisoners at close range in the back so that they fell into the river to be washed away. This was a common practice that occurred during 1944-1945.
Sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay have created a moving memorial to these Holocaust atrocities that sits in front of the magnificent Parliament building on the edge of the river. What visitors will see are 60 pairs of rusted period shoes cast out of iron. Different sizes and styles reflect how nobody was spared from the brutality of the Arrow Cross militia (the shoes depict children, women, businessmen, sportsmen etc.).

Now, 21 years later, the spectacular city is proof that these capitalistic, ideals and motivation paid off handsomely. Budapest has become a trendy vibrating place with cafes, bars and restaurants galore, while still maintaining that old character and heritage. Budapest now seem to be a happy place as opposed to those dark, dark years of communist rule and modern day ‘slavery’.

The Budapest bridge and castle at night
The Budapest bridge and castle at night

At 60 Andrassy Utca is the Terror Museum, which was unfortunately closed on the Monday I was there. They do however have an excellent display outside saying just enough to make sure I will go back and visit the museum on an open day. One such is the story of one Andràs Toma, the Hungarian soldier who was captured and put in a labour camp in 1944 by the Russian Red Army. Toma was captured on January 11, near Auschwitz and was taken to Boksitogorsk, or as the Russians call it Бокситогорск near St. Petersburgh. Toma picked up some illness and was transferred to another camp, Bistrjag (pronounced Bistrjag), some 1,000km further east and in 1947 transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnisch. Psychiatric patients were not labour camp prisoners and therefore András’ records were deleted. He was declared dead in 1954 and thus was ‘lost’. A linguist recognized his accent as being Hungarian and not Russian and his case was followed up. He was brought back to Hungary in 2000 after spending 54 years in a Russian Psychiatric hospital and with DNA tests he was reunited with his family. Since his military service was continuous, the Hungarian government paid him out all his back pay. Andràs Toma (who became Tamas) was probably the last WW2 POW to be returned home. Life’s a journey, they say.

The Terror Museum in Budapest
The Terror Museum in Budapest
Photos of victims who never returned
Photos of victims who never returned

If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave

‘My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest,

Golden grand piano

My beautiful Castillo’

For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.

A day at the museum

Ja well, to say the truth, two days at a couple of museums, but wow, what interesting stories, photos and places! Some of them seriously scary and entirely screwed up though!

 Berlyn1

Berlin’s history is not for the faint hearted. But nowadays, it is truly a magnificent city and I love going to Berlin. As a matter of fact, it must be my favourite city in all of Germany because of its vibrant new world feeling combined with that old world cold war inquisitiveness. And when you think further back, it obviously has a sickening place in history too, but to be able to wonder the exact same streets now and shake your head in misbelief on what has happened here in the recent past is simply a marvelous traveling experience.

Modern day Berlin is a vibrant beautiful city, working hard to forget its past
Modern day Berlin is a vibrant beautiful city, working hard to forget its past

 And furthermore, I love to visit sites that featured in movies. When Jason Bourne ‘kidnapped’ Nicky on Alexanderplatz in The Bourne Supremacy, I new exactly where that was and how those trams operated. Thus, I decided to start my two-day museum visit in Berlin with coffee and croissant in Coffee Fellows on Alexanderplatz.Berlyn2

I need to qualify before saying anything further that I am no political analyst, I am no historian, I am no fundi on war nor spying, and I am not a psychologist. I will simply blog my experience and sentiment. I am, however so curiously intrigued by the German history and why certain things happened the way they did. Thus, even though I have visited the DDR museum previously and I decided that I don’t have to go there again, I simply strolled there on auto pilot and found myself wandering through this fascinating museum once more contemplating the irony why the socialist state called themselves the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (or German Democratic Republic – GDR). Can it be that these guys actually had a very deep deep hidden sick sense of humour? They were so democratic (and honest) that Walter Ulbricht (the Chairman of the GDR Council of the State) on June 15, 1961 answered a journalist who asked if they were planning to ‘erect a state border’ at Brandenburg Gate with a ‘Nobody intends to put up a wall’.

The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years
The Berlin Wall divided the city for 28 years

On the peaceful Sunday morning of August 13, 1961 the barbed wire were strung and the East Germans were erecting barriers. Walter Ulbricht signed the approval on August 12, 1961. That was the wiring that ended up in a full border around West Berlin consisting of a wall on its eastern border and fences along the northern, western and southern borders. In total, by 1989, this western island city was fenced in by:

  • 106 kilometers of concrete plates
  • 5 kilometers of metal fence
  • 105 kilometers of anti-vehicle ditches
  • 127 kilometers of sensor fence
  • 124 kilometers of patrol paths
  • 302 watch towers
  • 20 bunkers and
  • 259 dog runs

The main reason was the many GDR citizens who exercised their democratic right to relocate to the west (in 1960 about 360,000) reaching a climax in 1961 of 19,100 in June, 30,400 in July and 47,400 in the first half of August. Exercising one’s democratic rights under the German Democratic Republic’s autocratic powers was just to freethinking for their liking and image!

GDR philosophy
GDR philosophy

So, while the DDR museum enlightens one regarding life in East Germany for the period between WW2 and the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989, the Deutsches Historisches Museum on the other side of the Berliner Dom tells the entire German history of the past 1500 years. Here you can follow history’s path through the political changes, the church reformation in the 1500’s, the language development and that interesting phenomenon and the pursuance thereof called ‘hegemony’.

HegemonyThis ‘big word’ features in the history of Germany, and Europe many times and coming from South Africa, I just shook my head in disbelief while wandering through the timelines and the resultant conflicts and shear scale of some of these conflicts. The first genocide mentioned in the Deutsches Historisches Museum is actually very close to home where it is mentioned that between 1904 and 1907 under the ‘Deutsch Südwest Afrika’ colonial regime (present day Namibia) eighty percent of the Herero population and 50 percent of the Nama population were killed in a brutal and deliberate scorched earth campaign. The drive was under the German General Lothar von Trotha and its estimated that between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereo and 10,000 Nama were massacred. According to Wikipedia, a copy of Trotha’s extermination order can be seen in the Botswana National Archives where it states ‘every Hereo, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women or children, I will drive them back to their people (to die in the desert) or let them be shot at’. These mass killings were named as the first example of a 20th century genocide.

What is wrong with the human race?

Checkpoint Charlie nowadays is simply a tourist attraction with fake soldiers spoiling the photographic opportunities
Checkpoint Charlie nowadays is simply a tourist attraction with fake soldiers spoiling the photographic opportunities

This is the third time I visited Berlin, and although Checkpoint Charlie is nowadays just a tourist photograph spot, with the most irritating wannabe dressed-up soldiers occupying the best photo spot and demanding money even to evacuate the spot so that you can take a photo sans them, I cannot not go there, have a coffee near the spot and sit and wonder. Café Adler is no more, unfortunately and has become part of a Berlin Café chain, but I did have the privilege to drink a coffee there in 2007 when I visited Berlin for the first time. I did find this excellent post regarding Café Adler though, and exactly as Francine Mathews so eloquently puts it, this is the reason I too keep returning to Checkpoint Charlie. Read it at http://www.francinemathews.com/cutout-spies.php

A stretch of the wall in Niederkirchanstraße
A stretch of the wall in Niederkirchanstraße

Berlyn5

Sort of just around the corner in Niederkirchenerstraße is a preserved part of The Wall, with nowadays a brilliant museum consisting mainly of photographs of the Nazi party’s rise and atrocities during the war itself. I don’t think one can visit Berlin without putting a silent morbid hour or two asides to stroll through the Topograhie des Terrors.

The famous Berlin Ampelmann
The famous Berlin Ampelmann

My personal highlight, though was my visit to the Stasi Museum just off the U-Bahn Magdalenenstraße. This is the actual office and headquarters of the Ministry of Sate Security until the fall of the wall. This is the offices, boardroom and even bedroom where Erich Mielke ruled this State Department with his iron fist from 1957 to 1989.Erich Mielke This was the spy headquarters where the East Germans conducted their propaganda, where they architected their subduing techniques and where the entire system of collaboration and civilian neighbour spying on civilian neighbour was run from.

Fascinating Stasi museum
Fascinating Stasi museum

Although the German history is scattered with atrocities of the grandest scale and incidents that truly make the stomach turn, there still is a weird and unexplainable nostalgia about the period of the cold war. In the seventies I was a child but remember the fascination I had when I heard the news mentioning the ‘lugbrug’ (air-bridge) of the western world servicing West Berlin or when my Dad told me about the spy novels he read where many scenes took place in Café Adler and those dark grey movie scenes portraying those days.

I love going to Berlin, I need more time.

East Side Gallery
East Side Gallery

The Italian Job 2 : ‘Veni, vidi, procedo’ (sic)

From the previous post;

And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful ‘five towns’ (Cinque Terra) and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi.

The leaning Tower of Pisa
The leaning Tower of Pisa

 

One of the great joys of traveling through Italy is discovering firsthand that it is, indeed, a dream destination. – Debra Lavinson

 

To have the privilege to sleep in a country guest house, rather than in a hotel room, (or two-man tent for that matter), to eat and be pampered through a five course dinner specially prepared for your little group, and all this in the stunning, idyllic, sought after, much talked about, written about, and filmed about Tuscan countryside, remains in my mind one of the highlights of my now already three year long European sojourn.

And this pampering I furthermore had the privilege to share with my family on my son’s 16th birthday and very very good friends from South Africa. That was good.

Andrea, the owner and restaurateur par excellance of Tenuta Il Verone near Florence, Tuscany with the competent help of Nilce, his Argentinian girl friend is busy establishing a commendable guest house 30 kilometers outside of Florence with a beautiful view over the surrounding countryside. They do, however specifically excel when they cater and serve. Starting with the traditional ‘Prosciutto crudo’ and melon platter, I soon realized I must keep my glass full of chianti’s finest red, go slow on each course of the meal as to enable myself to really get the best of the best of what this evening is promising to become. Not just the quantity promised to intimidate us, but the quality, the tastes, flavours and textures too was going to educate us tonight; ‘keep calm De Wet and go slow!’

After the platter of exquisite prosciutto we were presented with Andrea’s striking…… PENNE pasta dish followed by a exquisite chicken and vegetable dish. The wine was good and flowing, the food excellent and in abundance and I was getting really relaxed when Andrea entered with the most intimidating T-bone steak I have seen for quite a while. Note that I am South African; we are not easily intimidated by good steak, and I have had the best of the best Argentina and Uruguay could offer in terms of their famous ‘bifo de chouriso’, but this one was right up there with those world renowned ones. By the time that plate of steak was empty, I can vaguely recall that there was dessert and good Italian strong small coffee, but I could not remember the detail as the meat, yes the meat! Dimmed all further taste-bud senses. I do however remember that we still had the most interesting and friendly after dinner chat with Andre and Nilce. Thanx again you two, the stay at Tenuta Il Verone was one of the highlights. But, as is often the case with traveling, the real highlight is that we made some great new friends, in the heart of Tuscany, even through we communicate in a haphazard way, mostly through my daughter’s Spanish to Andrea’s Italian and Nilce’s Portuguese. That is one of the things that make traveling so fantastic!

Tenuta Il Verone is a gem in the Tuscan countryside worth discovering. Book dinner!
Tenuta Il Verone is a gem in the Tuscan countryside worth discovering. Book dinner!
Classic Tuscany
Classic Tuscany
Deep thinkers
Deep thinkers

And then came Praiano, in the heart of the Amalfi coast.

A week of bliss, scenic splendor and relaxation heaven, complete with dinners on cliff edges, swimming of the side of boats in the Mediterranean, canoeing into caves and early morning coffee and stuff with good conversation spanning from Koos du Plessis through to ‘what’s for dinner tonight!’

The Amalfi coast truly is one of the ‘must some day visit’ destinations of the world. The more famous Positano lies 18km further up the road from Praiano and yes, obviously we did visit Positano, walked the little streets and enjoyed the beach and sun. I will never ever say you can skip Positano, as it’s a must see in the same vane as is the Eiffel Tower, the leaning Tower of Pisa or even the Spanish Steps. But I do love finding the lesser-traveled roads and that slightly off the beaten track destinations which is not the mainstream, obvious tourist traps where you hear more English than Italian, for example. And though Praiano is still a very touristy and busy little town (just try to find casual parking!), it is slightly less crowded and more authentic than Positano. Think Fouriesburg over Clarence, think Bacharach over Rudesheim and think Hautvillers over Epernay and you’ll get my drift. That is exactly what Heleen found when she found and booked our stunning accommodation in Praiano, complete with ‘stoep’ (veranda) high on the mountain cliffs with its magnificent view over the Mediterranean, morning, noon and night, nogal! I mean, its here, in Praiano where I visited my first real Italian barber, complete with cutthroat old-fashioned razor and shaving cream (watch my short video). I can admit now that I was probably carefully scared, since I have seen many movies where these visits to the cutthroat barber turn out bloody, but I was okay, maybe because in the small-talk kick-off it came out that I was South African, and Senor Tomasso was a huge Gerrie ‘seer handjies’ Coetzee fan. Gerrie Coetzee was a successful South African heavy weight boxer in the early eighties.

The most beautiful Italian drive
The most beautiful Italian drive

One the must do’s on the Amalfi coast is to rent a boat for a day and visit the Isle of Capri! Yes, the island of the infamous student song ‘it was the Isle of Capri where I met here, ….’ and the non-repeatable rest. What this day on the boat offers is just simply a blissful and relaxing day in the sun, with friendly chatter, every now and then a dive and swim in the blue blue water and a visit to the Grotta Azzura or Blue Caves. A casual lunch in Marina Grande and then more casual sailing back with stops and swimming to wake up your appetite for the evening’s social ‘kuiers’ around the dinner table. I think these type of relaxing holidays are made better by the company you have and mine was just perfect.

Scenic splendour
Scenic splendour

And then there’s the drive! I can proudly say that I have driven the Amalfi coast in high season’.

National Geographic’s travel site introduces this drive as ‘The Costiera Amalfitana, or Amalfi Coast, is widely considered Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline, a landscape of towering bluffs, pastel-hued villages terraced into hillsides, precipitous corniche roads, luxuriant gardens, and expansive vistas over turquoise waters and green-swathed mountains. Deemed by UNESCO “an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape, with exceptional cultural and natural scenic values,” the coast was awarded a coveted spot on the World Heritage list in 1997.’ They then go further to summarise with the description ‘The roads along the Amalfi Coast are famously winding, narrow, and challenging to drive. Add in drop-dead views and daring Italian drivers, known for their behind-the-wheel bravado, and this road trip offers one of the more exciting driving experiences in Europe.’ I think ‘daring’ is a soft word for the Italian drivers, especially the ones on their world-renowned scooters. Suicidal is probably a more accurate word, but it does add to the sheer enjoyment of driving while trying to catch a glimpse of the glorious scenery and in the same time keeping an eye out for the scooters and large busses that will simply push you off the road. On busy weekend days, they actually have road assistants who will try to guide the traffic (though the adherence of the motorists are very very low) and even help to adjust your vehicle’s side mirrors so that the vehicles can pass each other.

I say again, I have driven the Amalfi coast, in high season!

As wonderful as was the superb Cinque Terra, Tuscany and Amalfi, so disappointing was Rome. Make no mistake, Rome is a wonderful city, with so many awe inspiring historical sites and stories to get lost into. But it still was extremely disappointing to be exploited by the hospitality industry where its deemed standard practice to charge a 17% service fee, or when you order a beer and just want a beer, you are presented with a liter of beer at 18 € each. At 17% service fee, you pay more for that than what the average person’s meal and drink costs. And this service fee is not even the tip to the waiter, which creates that little ethical dilemma of true service versus fixed restaurant added cost before paying the service fee. They are very friendly in luring you into their osterias but once you’ve had your meal, you’re in for the surprise. The service fee is a fixed percentage added to the bill and which is payable to the restaurant (not the waiter), because you ate there. We had good waiters every time, and who added to the whole dinner or lunch experience with their jokes, mockeries and good service and who deserved their tip, which just means that dining out end on an exorbitantly expensive sour note every time. Watch out in Rome, someone who looks friendly, will eventually stab you in the back!

But for the rest of Italy, it is ‘magnifico, superbo, maestoso e grandioso!’ Go and travel the coasts and Tuscan rural areas at leisure and stop often, to grab a macchiato!

Stop often, find a spot with a view, sit down and chat and think
Stop often, find a spot with a view, sit down and chat and think

The Italian Job : ‘Veni, vidi, vici’

‘A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority; from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see!’ – Samuel Johnson

 

Click on the photos to enlarge

 

I have seen It, I have traveled It, I have driven It, including that magnificent Amalfi coastal route, I have experienced a cutthroat Italian shave and now I have to share these travels as I simply cannot see so many inferiority complexes continue. However, I doubt if I can even slightly give justice to the experience, pleasure and sights I have seen on my three-week trip in this blogging attempt. If, however, I can inspire just one to visit Italy because of this blog, I’ll be happy.

So, please, go and just do it ✔

To add to an experience such as traveling Italy, its not a bad idea to take some of your best friends along. Sharing the beauty, the tastes, the wine, the music and friendship chatter with Andre en Rentia added that cherry on top satisfaction, which we had. It was good.

The first delightful stretch of road I discovered was still in Austria where I traversed the Alps between Zell am Zee and Heiligenblut over the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße, all the way up to the Edelweißspitze. I seriously suffer from fear of hights and this road tested me to the extreme of my bravery as far as hights go. I will, however be tested further on this journey as far as narrow, winding roads and Italian bus, car and scooter drivers are concerned. I believe I am now an accomplished driver and may even appear as a guest ‘Stig’ on Top Gear. Jeremy must just first discover me!

‘Ah Venice’ unfortunately is rapidly becoming ‘o no Venice’. The once magnificent icon on my third visit there was certainly the disappointment of the trip. Though the little alleyways, canals and architecture obviously are still there constantly posing for the Canon lens,

The Venice architecture is still glorious
The Venice architecture is still glorious

the Italian charm is mostly gone and replaced by a cheap plastic feel where shopkeepers are all but Italian and where the Gondola boats-men chat on cellphones and smoke rather than sing there once famous opera arias! Even those rows and rows of restaurant chairs on San Marco’s Square were pathetically empty, with some restaurants providing music to not a single customer at dinnertime. The once classy establishment had made way to a cheap ‘follow-the-flag-and-quickly-take-a-photo-from-a-distance’ type traveller who sees, but does not feel nor experience. Have the many years of exorbitant prices caught up with Venice, or is the Europe-wide influx of cheap labour and associated cheap stuff more to blame? It was a sad sad situation to observe. Very disgruntled by what we saw and experienced in Venice we were adamant to find some of the old charm for lunch and Cara took the lead out of the main streets. We were lucky. Seeing a little osteria (Da Mario at Fondamenta de la Malvasia Vecchia San Marco) tucked away in a quiet street we peaked through the door to see it filled with gondoliers.

Mama is still running the show
Mama is still running the show

Surely, this is the local hangout and we must try it. It was the real deal, with cheap great food, beer and wine as well as an Italian ‘mamma’ running the tiny kitchen with all the charm, sweat and noise which one would want and expect as the scene from an Italian restaurant. Venice was not yet completely lost!

Despite the disappointment of Venice, our stay was a delight, even though we camped. I opted for the lessor advertised and harder to find Agricampeggio Mose on Punta Sabbioni.

Aggricampeggio Mose is part of a working farm
Aggricampeggio Mose is part of a working farm

This camp is part of a working farm where they have a little stall selling the farm produce and which is run by (another) ‘Mama’, who even offer free transport to the ferry-bus and who runs the tiny café-bar, reception, shuttle service and no-English loud and fast Italian conversation with true Italian aplomb. Prepare for your survival by learning some life saving Italian phrases, such as ‘due espresso macchiato per favore’ and practice to say it in the required Italian rhythmic tone, with hands pointed backwards, all fingers clenched together and giving the beat of the request. Very important to then respond to Mama’s question, ‘latte caldo o freddo?’ with a confident ‘caldo’ (for hot milk) and not with a ‘huh!’ to prevent Mama whipping the floor with you! Even with the communication gap firmly in place, Mama’s sense of humor and joking with our ignorance regarding Italian ways and customs will make me recommend her camp-site with great pleasure. Just remember, Venice has plenty of water, take mosquito repellent.

On the west coast in the famous Cinque Terre region is another magic, yet slightly menacing to reach campsite, Campeggio Il Nido, which has been owned and run by Roberto for the past 28 years. Reaching Campeggio Il Nido was, even including the drive across the Alps in Austria, my first real driving challenge, negating the winding and narrow roads with crazy death challenging Italian drivers, each in his own mind totally convinced that his Vespa, Fiat 500 or even Piaggio 3-wheel delivery van/scooter thingy was a full-blooded Ferrari! Il Nido is truly tucked away in the coastal bush, on the edge of the mountain and with the most amazing views of the Mediterranean imaginable. The campsite consist of a few terraces where mostly only two- or three-man tents will fit and since its not in town, its little restaurant is where the entire camp will gather in the evenings and leisurely sit, eat, chat or catch-up on their Facebook status! It was here where I noticed the small interesting little library, with a particularly interesting book, for this part of the world.

One particular book intrigued me
One particular book intrigued me

Corneglia
Corniglia

Although the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre (remember cinque means five) can be reached by train, taking the hop-on-hop-off boat proved to be a stunningly relaxing way to visit the towns, with the added advantage of providing those exquisite views from the sea on the towns. The five towns that make up this must-visit destination are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Five old world fishing villages consisting of one or two mentionable little streets lined by the most exquisite and quaint buildings proudly inviting the camera lens for more and more. This coastline is rugged, with each town, except Corniglia, hugging a small bay/harbor where ‘the fish know all the fishermen and boats know each other’s name’, as Valiant Swart puts it so eloquently. Cinque Terre should be very high on any prospective traveller’s bucket list. Whether you love simply wandering around, browsing the many little stores, dipping into the clear clear water of the Mediterranean, sitting and sipping something cold to wash away the salty anchovies or actively hiking, taking photos and ‘ticking off’ your bucket list items, you will be happy in Cinque Terre.

The beauty of Cinque Terre
The beauty of Cinque Terre

Terre2

Perched on the edge
Perched on the edge

And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful five towns and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi. But that’s the next post.

The charm
The charm

and the breakfast
and the breakfast